Travellin’ Light

Jim Black Answers
20 Questions about Life on the Road

Jim Black is a drummer, composer and leader of AlasNoAxis. Their fourth album, Dogs of Great Indifference, will be released in March on Winter & Winter.


Bill Shoemaker: What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

Jim Black: Generally most airlines have been cool to me, I think because my cymbals are smaller than normal, and I carry a smallish backpack even though it weighs a ton, stuffed with electronics. If the going ever gets tough I can make my eyes well up with tears on demand, which used to work great for erasing overweight charges.
Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

I am a small man, and thankfully so regarding this issue of space, it pays off. I remember my tall friends Tim Berne and Mark Dresser climbing into the tiniest of cabin seats, looking like some kind of torture test. Favorite Dresser quote: After upgrading to business class for a NY/Tokyo flight, I asked him how it was afterwards, he replied “uh, OK....(long pause)....still too small....”

I always order Asian vegetarian, which is sometimes a really good curry (US bound Lufthansa flights) and sometimes tasteless crap. I don’t have low blood sugar issues, so fasting is a nice option until I find something worth eating.

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

Paris Charles De Gaulle. Nothing like a 30 min transfer with late arrival flight, and missing luggage. Delicious.

What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

Nothing is as important as the ‘ticket and passport’ check. I discovered this a year ago when as I was leaving for a flight to Iceland, I couldn’t find my passport. I then realized I must have dropped it on the ground after clearing customs the week before, thinking I had slipped it into its usual pocket on my coat. One hour panic attack, NY passport agency visit, flight rebook, and magically I made it for the gig. So when possible I try to arrive the day before the gig when flying internationally, there are just too many variables that can bite you.

What is your worst lost baggage story?

A bag with my band’s CDs and my clothes chasing me around Europe for 3 weeks, after Alitalia blew the bag transfer from Rome to Verona. Because I have permanently lost three bags filled with gear in my lifetime, and I was so pissed off after spending a hundred bucks on cell phone calls to trace the bag, and there was no time to shop, I just wore the same clothes everyday and didn’t try to replace anything. It showed up in NY two weeks after I got home, which was a miracle.
What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

Poland. Czech Republic. US customs coming back through Canada. Being group strip searched at the Swiss border from France into Geneva was highly pleasurable. They even separated me at first to be searched because they first mistook me for a woman (which still happens every week of my life, no matter what I wear or how my hair is cut.)

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

In terms of ‘lazy, mean, assholism’ Holland rules, but I also have had the coolest drivers there as well. France is a close second if you have large gear. As far as driving style, India is just a different level of comprehension. Animals, humans, and a myriad of vehicles all vying for the same small patch of road space in different directions, sometimes even if it’s a one way. We would take films of our rides to show friends but it never reflected the pure terror one feels in thinking any second you’re toast. Amazingly, there are less road accidents than most places.

What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

The infamous La Tour Rose hotel in Lyon, where getting to stay there actually is the payment for playing there, along with meals in the four star restaurant. They would change the tarts and pastries in my room in the middle of the day. The bartender shamelessly poured us wines valued at $400 a bottle along with cognacs that were 80-100 years old. I ate breakfast in the bathtub.

Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

I just bought a new Mac 12” Powerbook for music and business on the road, it completely rocks. I search for wireless on the road, but I refuse to pay more than $5 to connect. Normally, I can check my email once or twice a day IF I HAVE TO by connecting to my cell phone via Bluetooth. It’s still cheaper than connecting directly in a hotel, since many of them have blocked the free call numbers. You can’t surf with the slow Bluetooth connection but it is enough power for me to be on the beach in Portugal, send a bio or book a flight, then forget about it and enjoy living the rest of the day where I am. I mention this because as irritating, geeky, and corny as this technology is, it has enabled me to take care of all types of business and have even more vacation/escape time to myself anywhere in the world.

Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

I listen to music more than ever nowadays and the iPod mini holds plenty of it for a tour. Combined with iTunes, it’s easy to rip new CDs while traveling and to help finish projects on the fly. I am actually using it right now to help me master a CD while riding in a van through Italy.
Do you do your own laundry on the road?

Yes. I try to travel with as few clothes as possible and just do hand laundry every other day. One set of travel clothes and one set of gig clothes, then afterwards I can set everything on fire. I also like to shop on the road for cheap clothes, so I am really digging my polyfluff ensemble I picked up at H&M in Denmark, which is keeping me quite warm in this van at the moment.

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

Well, extra credit points for Ellery Eskelin in nailing these questions last month, but Andrea Parkins’ sampler starting on fire during sound check in Austria just about trumps all my whiney moments....and that Italian sound check Ellery mentions was a lesson in dysfunctional communication.
What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

In Germany, puffy white roll sandwiches with happy lunchmeat fillings before gig, unhappy fly infested lunchmeat fillings afterwards. When the technology is possible, plastic wrap can keep these lovely morsels fresh for hours. Scary doesn’t mean ‘not fun’ however as I recently witnessed with a highly esteemed musician on the road as he stuck his hand through the plastic wrap and massacred every sandwich searching for a tidbit to his liking. I will post a photo.
What are your three favorite venues?

That’s a tough one. I appreciate everyplace I play, especially the ones that keep inviting us back year after year to see what we have come up with. I am always blown away by the smallest independent clubs and promoters that do everything in their power to create a scene by bringing international artists to their venues, as well as fostering a healthy local scene. Whether in the US or Europe, they have been for me some of the best and most memorable shows.

Which cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?

For easy access, late night restaurants, Paris and New York are still first on my list. Oddly enough though, most of the Italian gigs I have done involve eating after the show, around 11pm.

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

I don’t have a clue. Normally, we finish the gig late, hang out for a while with our friends and fans, then run back to the hotel to get our few precious hours of sleep before we hit the road in the morning. I did see one in Faro, Portugal – there were all these kids backstage after a gig there and they asked us to sit in with them at their jam session. We showed up and there were seven or eight of them, ages 13-16, reading Duke Ellington tunes out of the Real Book in a smoke and alcohol infested club, and they actually sounded really good. So I guess it can happen anywhere.

What is the best city that closes down too early?

Well, oddly enough, Paris. Even though there are brasseries that one can dine in 24/7, my favorite parts of the city like Le Marais totally shut down by 2 am on a weekend. If you are out hanging with Icelanders, this will not do. Germany is much better suited, as well as the Netherlands and Belgium. Spain and Portugal are paradise for hanging out late.

What is the best locale to have a day off?

I love having days to explore in Japan, anywhere, especially the basement food courts and shopping areas. I could walk around Paris for a week straight and not get bored. The mineral waters and saunas at Claudius Therme Bad in Koeln, Germany will rebuild your immune system. Number one for me is Lisbon. An amazing city to explore, great vibe and food, and more than one beach easily accessible within 30 minutes where you are being pounded by heavy Atlantic waves.

What is your cure for jet lag?

To immediately jump on the schedule of the day wherever I arrive. Eating and pretending to shop are good distractions for me to stay awake. Sometimes I lay down for 2-3 hours but never more. A heavy red wine is a great sedative for helping to sleep at night, as long as I remember to take off my clothes and turn the lights and TV off.

What is your best tip for the novice?

Stay calm and don’t stress out when things don’t go as planned. The only reason I still do this much traveling, is that I am still having fun. Develop a sense of foresight. Learn to head off travel voodoo and chaos before it happens by taking notes and advice from others.

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