We Are the Road Crew - An Interview with Ken Barr
The live performance is the lifeblood of the music industry. And behind every great show, there are scores of road crew members working outlandish hours in often bizarre conditions to make it happen. Ken Barr made a career in this industry, working the arena circuits with KISS, Alice Cooper, and Stone Temple Pilots to name a few. Shortly after settling down with his wife, Ken wrote a book, a collection of stories from his days on the road. For anyone who has ever wanted to get a glipse at the life of a road crew member, Ken Barr’s We Are The Road Crew is a must read.
Guitar.com: Do you refer to yourself as a roadie or a tech? I know there seems to be some who take offense to one term or the other.
Ken Barr: Roadie is a proper term but there is a difference between the two. Back in the early days of touring, a roadie was a friend of the band who could stack the amps, load in, and load out all the equipment for the band. But if a guitar broke, they wouldn’t have a clue on how to fix it. I think that’s where the term “roadie” came into being. And as technology progressed into the 80s and 90s where you had big guitar rigs with big racks and more effects and that sort of thing, that’s when people started becoming techs. Some people have a real hang up when you call them a roadie because it refers to an earlier day when you were just a friend of the band and you stacked the amps. The term roadie to some extent infers a lesser ability and knowledge. Personally; I’m ok with either term.
Guitar.com:How has the progression of technology over the years effected your job?
Barr: Back in the day when a rig was just a wah pedal and a Marshall stack, it was pretty easy to diagnose a problem. Nowadays you’ve got frame racks and effects and programmable switching systems. I worked for Al Pitrelli back in the late 80s and he had one of the first ones (switching systems) and when he bought it we had to install it with no instruction booklet on the fly on tour. The gremlins I chased out of that thing were horrible. I did have a technical background but it was all new technology. So I can appreciate the days of just having a simple rig, no wireless systems, those were great days.
The last tour I did in 2000, a sound company called Berhinger had just started endorsing our monitor engineer, Kevin McCarthy. And he started programs on his laptop that had all the presets for every song, so he could just push a button and it was good to go.
Guitar.com: Does a person need to be a great musician to be a great tech?
Barr: A lot of road crew guys are great musicians; there are guitar techs out there who are as good if not better than the guy they work for. I started out as a mediocre guitar player, which was good because when I started working for Eric Singer, I came in with no preconceptions of what his drum kit should be set up like. Eric described his drum kit to me like this - it’s like you’ve adjusted all the settings in your car and it’s perfect and it fits you. I teched for Gene Simmons and I knew exactly how he wanted his bass to sound, and we could hit it every night. I know Eric Singer hired a drum tech who was a great drummer. But the guy spent half the tour trying to change how Eric setup his drum kit. So I think for me not being a musician, it made it easier to move around like that. To me it was just setting up hardware for other people, it wasn’t that I wanted to put my personal style into it. And that allowed me to get a lot of work.
Guitar.com: What is the most frustrating thing for a tech to have happen during a show?
Barr: Having a rig go down is bad but even worse than that is when you have a musician who’s not happy and he doesn’t know why he’s not happy. I’ve had guys come up to me and say, “It doesn’t sound right.” And I’d ask what they weren’t getting and they’d say, “I don’t know, fix it.” When I worked with Al Patrelli, he was such a precision player that he could tell me exactly what he was not getting and I could take care of that. But when you’ve got a guy that doesn’t know how to tell you what he’s not hearing or can’t figure out if it’s the monitor or the rig or the guitar cabinet, which gets frustrating. Then you’ve got a guy having a bad night on stage and a frustrated guitar tech and nobody’s happy.
Guitar.com: Guitar techs are not magical pixies who can read minds?
Barr: Exactly, you can play the exact same guitar rig with all the same adjustments and even if it’s a tube amp and they are in the exact same shape, every building is different. What’s the density of the stage? Is the stage on legs? Is it a wood stage? Is it concrete? How big is the building? What does the ceiling look like? All of these things need to be taken into account and you need to be able to adjust for them every single day. And we can get it pretty close, but it will never sound exactly like it did in the studio. I worked with some guys who worked for Carson in LA, and they teched for Bush when they first started out. They hadn’t played alot, they got a record deal pretty much right away and started playing big venues. And their complaint was that their amps didn’t sound right after two or three songs because they didn’t understand the concept of ear compression and it took them a long time to learn that and compensate for it. If you stand in front of a Marshall stack for a while, after the first two or three songs, your ears start closing up just to save themselves. So unless you wear earplugs on stage, after the first two or three songs your whole guitar rig is going to sound different. Most musicians understand that because they had played in clubs for years but these guys had not done that so they didn’t understand that concept.
Eric Singer, when I first started working with him I was not his tech on Alice Cooper. But he wore ear plugs to save his ears because the monitors are loud, the drums are acoustically loud and that will take your hearing over time. The monitor guys would always argue with him because he wore earplugs which made the monitor guy’s job more difficult. But you have to wear earplugs and you can adjust for that and it should be the same every night. Back in the day we did not wear earplugs. I started wearing them in the mid 80s and I think that’s why I have most of my hearing still enact. You can get ear damage at one show if the right things happen. But the in-ear monitors are great and they have really been saving people’s hearing.
Guitar.com: How much work does it take to put on an arena show?
Barr: It can be a 16+ hour day. Tech guys like me don’t spend quite as much time there. But I just liked being there. So I worked with the Riggers and I’d spend the whole day at the arena. There’s a lot of work that goes into a show that people don’t realize.
Guitar.com: For those who don’t know, Riggers are the crazy climbing guys who crawl around in the rafters.
Barr: Yeah, they do the climbing. Everything that hangs from the ceiling has to have beam motors to lift and lower them and there’s a weight that has to be calculated so that you make sure you don’t bend the beams that support the building. So they do all of that math and figure out when the motors need to be and then if there’s not a beam above where the motor needs to be, then they have to figure out a way to get it there. And that usually entails using something called bridals which are those big strap looking things that go between the beams on the ceiling so that a motor can be hung from the ceiling. The safety of the show and everyone in the building is on these guys’ heads. It’s really a hard job and its also a physical job, you’re climbing, you’re hanging motors. They’re usually the first in and the last out. To me, they work the hardest.
Guitar.com: Let’s talk about the book
Barr: I think that every guy who’s been out on the road has talked about writing a book because the road is an experience. I had some things in my personal life that came up - I had an illness that wasn’t diagnosable and for a very brief time there was a thought that I wouldn’t be around much longer so I told myself that if I get through this that I would write that book I had been talking about. I got a diagnosis and it wasn’t that bad and treatable. And as soon as I was done I got all of my tour itineraries, which I had kept all of them, and put them out on the kitchen table. And for the past 20 years, I had a book that told me where I was every day. For the better part of a year I worked on this book, reading my itineraries would jog my memory and I would write. It sounds like a long time but when you’ve never written a book before, and its not what you do, it had a lot of figuring out as far as formatting and how I wanted to tell this particular story. But once I had it laid out, it was pretty smooth going after that.
As far a sequel, I'd love to do that someday. I took 20 years and condensed it into 200 pages or so. I could have done 500 pages but then the book wouldn’t be affordable and who wants to buy a 40 dollar book from somebody they never heard of. But I’m going to take some time off for now but in the future, I’d love to write another book, or several. I could do a book just on the time with Alice Cooper or one just on my time with KISS. I’d also like to bring in some of the people I worked with, some other road crew members and share their stories.
Guitar.com: So, what now? Is there a sequel on the way? Will you ever go on the road again?
Barr: I stopped touring in 2000. I still do the odd show here or there. I work in the entertainment field in Florida now. But my career as a roadie is behind me. I got to a point in my life where it was time to be a husband and take care of my health be a regular person. I miss it but I think I’m where I need to be right now.
Who was the most difficult people to work for?
I was lucky. I worked for Air Supply, Debbie Gibson, and the Bangles in the 80s, Alice Cooper, KISS, and Stone Temple Pilots in the 90s. I think my only unpleasantness might have been my years with Stone Temple Pilots when Scott’s conditions were getting worse. That was a difficult situation because you didn’t know day to day if there was going to be a show. The guys themselves were great to work with but that situation when you’ve got someone with the issues he had, and you didn’t know what was going to go on. Even if the show went on, you didn’t know song to song what was going to go on. There were instances where if something was going on with Scott, the other guys would just walk off stage because they couldn’t deal with it. So that situation was hard.
If you're interested in getting a copy of Ken's Book - Click here