Many thanks to Hamish at RHCP Sessions for the scans.
On The Road With The Red Hot Chili Peppers
The ‘Otherside’ of one of the format’s hottest tours.
Have you ever wondered what’s involved in putting on a major tour? We have, so we went to one of today’s hottest groups and peeked around the curtain to find out what goes on behind the live show. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Production Manager, Bobby Leigh, and Tour Manager, Louie Mathieu, give us an all-access look at taking the act on the road.
The first question is, what happens once the band decides they want to go on tour? Explains Mathieu, “They get together with management and the booking agent and establish the parameters of how much touring they want to do depending on where we’re going. We put on such a physical show that, at best we do two days on and a day off. Routing is established, aid then the whole process begins.”
Leigh favors the Chili Peppers’ touring schedule. “I’ve been doing tours as production manager for 15 years, and this is the absolute best schedule I’ve ever seen,” he says. “A lot of other bands will go five or six days in a row, and by that time everyone is tired and burned out. The Chili Peppers also do three-week legs, then break for 10-12 days. In the meantime I have to make sure that everyone is ready for us on the text leg. It’s a break from actual touring, but it’s still work.”
Mathieu says the downtime costs a little more, but it’s worth it. “You’re paying everyone a retainer.” he explains. -You’re paying for the bus to sit, for the sound gear to sit and for the trucks to sit while you take the break. To us, it’s worth it. It allows us to tour longer than if we just went out for six weeks at a time and burned ourselves out. Most management companies will tell you it’s insane, but this is how we do it, and we’ve been around long enough that we can dictate our terms. We’re very fortunate in that.”
Once all have agreed on the basics, Mathieu says the focus shifts to production and lighting. “You get a lighting designer to meet the band and find out, if we want to do projection, what kind of film we want to do,” he explains. “Sound is a no-brainer in terms of’ what you’re going to bring; it’s pre-established.
“We have exacting monitor requirements we’ll bring with us if the system they are providing is deemed inadequate. When we do the States, we bring everything with us because it’s more cost-effective. Once that’s in place, you hire the personnel and get your technicians together; you assemble the team and figure out budget. As the tour manager, I oversee all of this. Once that stuff is in place. I start handling the band: they become my main focus.”-.
Mathieu makes the band’s travel arrangements, from flights to hotel rooms and everything in between, so he needs to know what’s going on in their schedules in order to work around all the details when they travel.
“It’s exacting, crazy work that you have to put into it, in terms of travel,’ hotels and everyone’s preferences,” he says “It’s a bunch of little things that are important for making a happy rock ad on stage instead of a bunch of people slogging through tour tired, worn out and staying in crappy places, eating crappy plane food.
“We try to make it as easy as possible at this stage in their career because they’ve put in their time. They can afford to do; they don’t have to kill themselves. Traveling in the is very different from traveling overseas. The States are easier in many regards, because there are no language or cultural barriers and you can hit major cities within reasonable distances.
“If the distance is too far, we’ve got different philosophies in the band: Some prefer to do the long drive overnight, some prefer to stay in the city and fly out the following day. We create an itinerary, a booklet that lists all the venues, the hotels and how each person is traveling. Once you establish all that, of course it changes- a guy decides he wants to fly home and see his girlfriend and come back the day of the show, that’s where the ulcers begin.”
LIGHTS, Sound …TVs?
“When the itinerary is booked, our agent will go out and sell the shows to promoters” Leigh explains. ‘Then management will go to each promoter and cut a specific deal.” The stage design originates with the band and a video director. ‘They come up with an idea for the stage show, and it’s my job to bring those ideas, that vision, to the stage via lights, props, video screens and any other elements to make the show extraordinary,” Leigh says.
He knows companies and people who have the same professional yet laid-back philosophy as the band, people who’ll get the job done and have fun. “That’s a big deal with us,” he says. “I want to make sure everyone is having fun. We run things very relaxed with the Chili Peppers. It’s a casual yet professional organization.
“Our video director and the band decided they wanted 12 flying TVs and the biggest video screen available. They wanted to make the show look like you started off in a club and then reveal a bigger set as it goes on. Throughout the set, walls drop and curtains disappear to reveal this gigantic video screen. At 60 feet wide, it’s the largest on tour right now. Televisions fly wound the stage — it’s incredible.
“Once I’ve hired the companies and put together a crew, I call the promoters one by one and review our entire show with them. I want to make sure they have all of the people they need to help us build this every day. Then we set out to conquer America.”
The crew starts at 9am to transform an empty hockey arena into “an amazing rock show by midafternoon.” Leigh says. “We have four trucks and 35 people on our crew. We start with our first truck, which is our production and rigging truck. It’s basically my office, with my traveling office cases and our dressing room cases.
“The rigging pieces are the motors that hang from the ceiling of the arena — the foundation of our show. They hold the trusses. the lighting system. the PA speakers and the televisions; they make them float in the air. Our rigger is the guy who climbs up into the ceiling of the arena and attaches these 35 motors to the beams that hold the weight. That takes a couple of hours to set up. We hire about eight local people to assist him to make sure everything is in the exact place it needs to be to fly correctly.
“Then we load in our second truck, which carries our video and lighting gear. We have an additional 12 local guys hired to help get the lighting system together. They don’t know our stuff, so our guys will tell them how to build the trusses, bolt them together and attach each light. We work on lighting until I lam. Then I have another eight local stage-hands hired to come in and help our sound people. They put the speakers in place and attach them to the motors, set up the console. set up the monitors and get the sound system together.
“After that we load in our fourth truck, which is the backline truck. We get that onstage and make sure it’s working correctly. The band’s crew will come and get a soundcheck. Our monitor/sound engineer has the toughest job on tour. He’s the guy with the toughest audience. He’ll come in and make it sound good for the band and make them happy.”
At around 3pm the Chili Peppers’ drum riser is moved to make room for the opening band, who set up and soundcheck. Leigh takes a final walk-through to make sure everything is in place. He meets with the security heads to make certain security is run according to the band’s wishes. By then it’s time to open the doors. Leigh gets to take a breather as the fans start pouring in. Usually, he and his crew eat dinner, another detail he organizes with the promoter. “When I’m advancing the show and making sure the promoter has all of the necessary tools for us, I also make sure that they have enough food, the right amount and the right type,” he explains. The Chili Peppers, he says, eat according to their blood types, which can make finding the right caterer or other source difficult.
“On this tour I hired a tour chef, Jaime Laurita,” Leigh says. “This guy is world-renowned. He worked with Sarah McLachlan on Lillith Fai. He has an assistant. and every day they shop at the local health-food store and grocery store for food to prepare for the band. I make sure Jaime has a place to cook. He has his own stoves, gas burners, pot and pans. dishes, etc. The only things he needs locally are a refrigerator and a sink. He’s amazing. He can take a locker room and transform it into an amazing Oriental restaurant. He’s very creative.”
When it comes to opening acts, the Chili Peppers firmly believe in treating them with fairness and respect, which Leigh wholeheartedly supports. “My philosophy is that you have to be careful how you treat them because you just may end up working for them someday,” he says. “The Chili Peppers are the nicest guys you’ve ever met in your life. They treat everyone with absolute and total respect.
“That’s a big deal, because I’ve been in situations where you feel like you’re getting screwed over by the headliner.
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You’re not allowed to do this, you can’t do that, etc. The opening act right now are The Foo Fighters, and we let them have the entire stage. We even let them come up with their own lighting plot. There are no limitations at all as far as what they are allowed to do.”
It would seem that the hardest part of Leigh’s job is over when the band takes the stage, but that’s when the real work begins. “As soon as The Foo Fighters leave the stage, I have my 10 guys onstage, and I direct them on how to switch over from the Foos,” he explains. “The goal is that within 30 minutes of the Foos leaving the stage, my band is going to walk in and only see their own set. I call house lights, the curtain is dropped and pulled out of the way. and the band walks onstage and starts playing.”
While the crowd goes crazy, Leigh and his crew are looking for anything that could possibly go wrong. “We watch the band and make sure everything is fine. It’s called mind reading; I try to see how they are feeling. I can sometimes tell if a venue is too hot or too cold or if they don’t feel right. The guitar tech will make sure John’s [Frusciante] guitars are in tune and his effects arc working correctly. Flea’s tech will do the same thing, and Chad’s chum tech is making sure the heads arc fine, that he has enough sticks, water, etc. We just make sure that these guys are sorted onstage so that they can perform their job and the show goes the way it should.
“Also, I am always making sure that the barricade that’s holding the kids back is OK and that no one is going to get hurt. I make sure that the security guys aren’t abusing the kids, which, unfortunately, sometimes happens. We have to be on top of that and make sure some lummox doesn’t get on a power trip and hurt somebody.” Leigh acknowledges that the Chili Peppers’ roots are in punk, so it’s OK if kids want to surf or form a mosh pit.
“After the encore the band go to their dressing room. They’ll shower, relax, then have dinner. They might hang around and see friends if they have guests there or just get in the bus and go to their hotel. “Once they’re off the stage. the house lights come on, and I have anywhere from 28 to 38 local people come back to help us break it down, piece by piece, and start loading the trucks. I set them up in departments. Some people go to backline, some people go to video, lighting, sound. etc.
“We have department heads for each of these who make sure everything goes back where it belongs and that each of the cases gets into the right truck. Tearing down averages about two hours. It takes eight to set it up and two to tear it down. We took a lot of time preparing this tour, so it’s really fast and efficient to get in and out. We get to the bus, have a few beers and go to bed.”
I’M WITH THE BAND
While Leigh is keeping the band’s stage show running, Mathieu’s job is make sure bandmembers get to where they are supposed to be for shows, interviews and any other commitments. He’s always working on travel arrangements. “Ideally, you want to be a month ahead of travel time to get the flights, hotels, availability and advance-purchase deals,” he says. “Now that we’re doing the States, it’s mapped out through the end of September. I know where we’re going, but I didn’t start planning our hotels in July for September. So much can change, you never know, we deal with it as it comes,
“While I’m doing all of that, management is dealing with the record company and setting up all the press. Prior to leaving, I get a press schedule that says what we’ve committed to, what the band has agreed to, radio interviews, TV and MTV. We don’t like to do meet and greets because they’re so stilted. We want to do something for our fans, but we just don’t want a cheap exchange. We’ll put the contest winners on the side of the stage, or they can ask questions in an interview.”
Mathieu provides the crew with a daily schedule of their commitments. “I make a call sheet showing what we’re doing the next day, how long it’s going to take us to get to the venue and what we’re doing upon arrival,” he says. “I have to meet with the radio people, have my assistant give them their passes and put them in their separate moms. John goes to do this interview with this radio Station, a DJ and two contest winters. Anthony does a solo interview with VH1. It varies from day to day who does what interview, but there are no more than two a day.”
Mathieu orchestrates the press interviews by making sure there’s a car to pick the guys up and get them back in time for the show. “The press and promotional stuff is the toughest part,” he says. “I compare it to an airplane taking off: The hardest part is getting the thing off of the ground. Once you’re up there, it kind of starts running itself. When you’re out on tour, it’s just aerodynamics. ”
OR THE FLY
“When you’re out there, you’re doing everything on the fly, day to day,” Mathieu continues. “Different stuff comes in: There’s been a change, this person’s not coming, this person is flying in, girlfriends, guest lists. Or somebody gets sick, and you have to get a doctor to the venue or hotel. There are so many things that can come up through the course of the day that I have to deal with as a full-service manager. If you could take a day to sit here and watch what flies across my desk. it’s pretty kooky.”
As mundane as it may sound, laundry is one more item Mathieu oversees. “We bring our laundry bags to the venue, and my production assistant will send it out to the local fluff-and-fold,” he explains. “You’ll get it back at the next gig. But we’re The Red Hot Chili Peppers; we don’t wear much. They had suits made one time but got tired of them and went back to street clothes. We’re not a wardrobe-intensive group,” Mathieu jokes.
“Nothing surprises me after doing this for as long as I have,” he reflects. “It might seem strange to outsiders to see what it takes (or a rock band to stay healthy and happy on the road. A lot of it is chiropractors and masseuses. These guys are very athletic in their performance, and they’ve been doing this for a long time. They’ve fallen and injured themselves.
“I’ve had to go to emergency rooms when people have fallen off the stage. I’ve watched the guys get stitched up. I’ve been there when a guy gets hit in the head with a bottle and gets a gash over his eye. I sit there and put pressure on his head.
“You’re the personal assistant. If they’re having trouble getting something from the hotel, I’ll call and use the heavy voice and say, “We have a lot of rooms here; we expect a certain degree of service. Can I sneak to the manager?’
“If I have to end up getting someone something at 4am to make their stay more pleasant, well, that’s my gig, making everyone comfortable and happy. Whatever it takes from ‘Louie, we need a TV in the dressing room to watch the game.’ to, ‘I’ve changed my mind; I want to fly tomorrow. It’s on me to get that flight, to get the car, to get them to the airport and on the plane to fly home. Even if it’s against my better judgment, that’s what they want to do.”
GIVE WHAT THEY WANT
“I’m in the business of making things happen, of pulling the rabbit out of the hat to make somebody happy.” Mathieu continues. “I’ve been with these guys a long time, and used to working with them. Their behavior is not out of line. They are very appreciative, but they’re used to doing they want to do when they want to do it. They’ve earned the right.
“They don’t do it in a shitty way; they don’t throw fits or tantrums. They’re always polite. They ask, ‘Louie you make this happen?’ To someone else it might seem outlandish, but these are people who have paid their dues in order to earn not just the money, but also that personal freedom. You do it for long enough, and you get very accustomed to having your way. You learn to hire people who can get things done for you.”
Mathieu often finds himself in the position of making deals or trading concert tickets for a service. “If we pull into a city and someone wants to rent a motorcycle, but its 5pm and the motorcycle shop is closed, I get the owner’s number. I call and say that The Red Hot Chili Peppers want to rent bikes, and he may say, ‘I love that band; I want tickets to the show.’
“There’s a lot of reciprocity. Some people will go the extra mile for us, and we in turn are more than happy to take care of them. If someone in the band likes a pair of shoes, I call the company that makes them. Somebody’s stereo breaks, I try to fix it. Everything is my job.
“Recently, one of my guys had a clogged ear, and heard that ear-wax candles can fix it. The next thing you know, I’m at the health-food store, buying an ear-wax candle. I went to his room and lit it while he held it in his ear. To me, it’s normal.
“One of my guys may say to me, ‘Dude, my hair is too long; I need a haircut.’ We carry around a hair clipper, so tell him to step into the bathroom, and I shave his head. I’m not Jose Eber, but if you want your head shaved, I’ll do it. I’m everything from the nurse to the hairdresser to the consultant. As soon as somebody says, ‘I need this done, it becomes my job.”
Clogged ears aside, Mathieu has witnessed various members of the band perform under dire straits. ‘There are no days off on the mad,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Every day is a workday. You just soldier through it because the show has to go on — not to sound cliché or trite, but it’s true.
“I’ve seen Anthony throw out his back so that he can’t walk, and he’s ready to cry became he can’t give the show he wants to give. I’ve seen Flea so sick that he’s literally convulsing, in tears that he doesn’t have the energy to go out and play. Yet he’ll go out there and overcompensate. They’re about their music, and it’s an emotional thing. When they come off the stage, they’re exhausted because they’ve given It their all. You play through the pain.” Mathieu pauses, then jokes, “Don’t let your babies grow up to be rock stars.”
Passion is the key word for Mathieu, “I love this job,” he says. “I’ve been afforded so much and my life has been so enriched by my relationship and experience with these guys. They have taught me so much about self-sufficiency and having a strong work ethic. They entrust me to be their spokesperson, their face, and I cherish that trust.”