Approaching Working Musicians in the Wild: a Field Guide for Conscientious Fans
Humans are social animals. At least we were until socialising temporarily became fraught. But even before the pandemic, the etiquette of approaching a working musician in the wild was never truly understood, the boundary between stage and floor being closer to stone circle and leyline than booze-sticky moshpit. So how should the conscientious fan, who has now built up a troublingly deep and complex parasocial relationship with the band, inject themselves into the lives of their heroes for real and pick up their friendship from where the last imaginary conversation left off? In this guide I hope to show what to look out for and the best possible approach, backed-up by sheer minutes of anecdotal research. Obviously we are not talking about those who are immediately whisked off backstage and plied with beer, fresh fruit and fun-sized Mars bars, never to be seen again until the next tour; no, not these, but the hard-working ordinary folk of rock and roll, who lift their own gear in and out of vans on wet September nights.
Know Your Mark, Know Your Timing
No matter how interesting and rewarding a friendship with you would be, you must embrace the terrible thought that some people will never, ever care to find out. To save your blushes you must become adept at spotting those who are happy to receive a complete stranger entirely uninvited, those who are too polite to tell you to fuck off, and those who would have no qualms about telling you. The black metal fan will surely already know their place in the relationship, and should feel grateful to be a bottom-feeder, violently defending their favourite band against splinter factions on the internet. Entirely crumb-free, of course. No-one’s going to throw you that bone; hope is your enemy.
All good music comes from a place of passion, but those passions impact performers differently. For those who dig deep in order to deliver the correct emotional torrent, resetting their headspace will take time.
“I can tell you when is not the best time,” Bismuth’s Tanya Byrne explains regarding when they are happy to be approached at shows. “Directly after we’ve played as, 1. I’m in a weird emotional place, and 2. We have stuff to pack up.” So what is the best time, then? “Maybe [wait] like half an hour or so?” they suggest.
Mike Regan of Barbarian Hermit fame would have even longer, looking for “a good hour after we’ve played.”
“An hour after the set?!” Ex-Ohhms guitarist Daniel Sargent interjects. “That’s bedtime!”
“Personally I find it awkward,” says Aerosol Jesus frontman Oli Melville. “My absolute bugbear is when people who clearly didn’t get much from it say ‘good show, man,’ and you know fine well they didn’t dig it. It’s like, why say it unless you mean it? I’d rather avoid it altogether.” Despite this awkwardness, Oli still admits he will try his best to engage with those who are clearly genuine. “I’ve learned to be less awkward over the years,” he continues, “and those people are lovely. I’m one of these people who warm up once the initial awkwardness is out the way.”
Springing the Trap, Ingratiating Yourself
There are some definite faux pas to avoid if you are determined to get your lifetime best-friendship off to a good start, or ensure your noise-drone project gets on the next tour.
“Right as the first song starts,” is the best time to approach, jokes Boss Keloid’s Alex Hurst.
“As you’re packing away whilst the band after you are bringing on their gear, just after you’ve finished your last song,” Peter Holland of Elephant Tree adds. “The best.”
But those with buses home to catch need not despair. There are ways to curry favour with a tour-weary band member. Think not of it as bribery, but as oiling the wheels. Lubrication, certainly.
“Whenever they have purchased me a beverage,” Daniel quips as to the best time to talk to him at a gig.
“Bring drinks and be friendly,” agrees Dennis Petersen of Slowjoint.
“Buying me a drink or helping to lug gear off stage will always put you in my good books,” Mike reveals.
Indeed, Bones Huse of Morass of Molasses jokes that, “If you help with load out you get to ask an extra question.”
Of course, there will be some outlying cases where this advice will not apply, where the mechanism of reason is no longer there. “I don’t mind people chatting to me while I’m still playing,” says Ohhms’ Chainy, and, truth be told, I believe him. This is, after all, a man who decided to sleep on stage, a monitor for a pillow, while his tourmates played their set.
Chainy’s bandmate, Paul, claims to “hate gigs and people,” but we all know the secret truth that he is, in fact, a big softy, happy to chat music and horror films with just about anyone.
Even when all other avenues close, there is still one shiny road to reaching out to a sweaty, exhausted musician and still make their evening better: the merch table. If you purchase a record, shirt or some other offering from the high priests themselves, the conversation karma is immediate. You will be brought into a fresh circle of light where not as many as hoped dare tread, and suckled on the bosom of gratitude. Possibly.
But beware of leaving your approach too late in the day, and certainly too late at a festival. As a cautionary tale, heed the words of Sea Bastard’s Steve Patton: “Playing Damnation [Festival] was probably the funniest for me as a fair few people came to say hi after we played when I was at the bar watching High on Fire, and I was so off my face by then I couldn’t actually speak!”
However you decide to make your approach, bear in mind we are all flawed humans looking for succour in a cold and obstinate universe, and be a nice person.