Article by Sarah Williams. Photos from Friday’s gig courtesy of Sam Dawes at This Is Noise. Part of our #MentallySound series, discussing mental health in music.
Four people have turned up for the gig so far, they’re standing awkwardly in the corner nursing pints and whispering about where everyone else is. The guy taking money on the door is twiddling his thumbs. I need to sell fifty tickets to cover the cost of putting on the show, so I guess I’ll be living on ramen this month.
The sound engineer is frantically trying to fix the PA, which started rattling and cutting out during the sound check. Two guitarists are scowling at the set up – there’s not enough room on stage and the sound is terrible. We’re running an hour behind and none of the bands have played yet; I’m going to cut the set times and maybe cut the opening act entirely. The headliner band is here apart from the singer, who couldn’t get out of work on time – apparently he’s stuck on a train somewhere. There’s a good chance he won’t make it to the gig at all.
“What the hell were you thinking, Sarah?” the venue manager asks angrily. “There’s no point in us keeping the venue open for four people. This is a waste of time – we’re going to cancel the show if you don’t sort this out.”
My parents are here too: “I can’t believe this is what you’re doing with your life! What a waste of time. Couldn’t you have been a doctor or a lawyer? You are a walking disappointment.”
Worst case scenario. Fortunately, the real gig was a success. No disasters whatsoever. Nonetheless, that was the nightmare I woke up from the morning after I booked the band and the venue. I am riddled with anxiety at the best of times, so putting an event together has reminded me why I don’t do it regularly.
I recently moved to a completely different part of the country and, as a result, had to bury myself in a deluge of job applications, interviews and utility bills. The last thing I need on top of all that is to be driving 200 miles, promoting a show and trying to squeeze in all the other shows I want to attend. Still, there is a part of me that enjoys being overwhelmed, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than live music.
As such, I thought it’d be a great idea to put on a show at The Smokehouse in Ipswich, a few weeks after moving to Manchester. Darko, Actionmen, PMX and Pessimist are playing as part of my birthday celebration and as a send-off from the venue, where I’ve been working for the past few months. On Thursday I’m going to catch PMX and Actionmen in Manchester, my gig takes place on the Friday, and on Saturday I’m catching PUP and The Menzingers in London. In theory, it should be fun.
It’s been a couple of years since I last promoted a show single-handedly. Booking it was straight-forward and promotion is simple: get posters, get flyers, get it out there on Facebook. I’d had good feedback about the eye-catching poster Mark Bell drew for it. I’d given a lot of thought to social media to strike a balance between posting often enough and not annoying the fuck out of everyone (I’m still worried I might have overdone it!). There’s literally nothing more that I can do.
Despite all that, I can’t help but worry. I have generalised anxiety (translation: I constantly imagine disasters) and I’m a perfectionist with unrealistically high expectations of myself, all of which combines to give me an overwhelming fear of failure.
In the days leading up to the gig, I have been a bit tense and regularly revisiting a mental checklist to make sure I have everything covered. I do. Everything is going to be fine.
Bing. Bing. Bing. Thursday morning, 7am, barely any light filtering through the curtains. It’s my birthday and the well-wishing Facebook notifications are already starting to pile up. I make a tactical decision to completely ignore my alarm, opting instead for a luxurious birthday sleepathon.
7.15am, Capdown suddenly floods the room at full volume: my phone’s ringing. Who the hell would call me at 7.15am? Oh, it’s my Nan, calling to wish me happy birthday. Through my half-awake haze I manage to exchange pleasantries without verbalising my intense annoyance. She wishes me happy birthday before berating me for not calling her often enough. By the time we hang up I am uncomfortably but certainly awake. I suppose it’s not such a bad thing; I have got a lot to organise today so an early start would be beneficial.
I am concerned I won’t get everything done in time, that I will forget to do something, or that no one will turn up to my show. The reality is that there’s very little that could go wrong and, if it did, it would be easy to fix it. It’s just a room full of punk rock and people enjoying it, simple as that. Instead, my silly anxiety-addled brain sees a gauntlet of opportunities for personal failure.
On top of that, I’ve got a slew of birthday messages to address. Just looking at my notifications is filling me with dread. Each of these messages is wonderful and I do want to speak to everyone, but there are enough blinking notifications that it looks like a huge task to answer them all. I decide to leave it for now and turn off my phone.
In the afternoon, I have fun cooking food for the bands, picking up beers, making a playlist and sorting out stage-times. I sit down for ten minutes and suddenly realise I’m going to be late for tonight’s show if I don’t get my skates on.
The weight of gig-promotion related worry alters how I react to everything else. That’s why, when I wake up to a Facebook wall exploding with birthday comments I felt like my head is going to cave in. It’s also why I am now unnecessarily concerned that I might be a minute late to tonight’s event, even though I’ll probably be early. What if I miss a song? It’s by no means a disaster if I do, but I can’t help worrying about it. It’s just how my head works.
The gig has been moved from Gullivers to The Castle Hotel across the road, which turns out the be a blessing; the venue fits the smaller Thursday-night crowd perfectly. I have a G&T to soothe my social anxiety (you mean I have to talk to people?!), while taking in Riggots’ opening set.
PMX and Actionmen are playing at this show, as well as at my gig tomorrow. Although it’s not a competition, I’m quietly weighing up how many people are here and wondering whether I’m going to fill the venue tomorrow. Have I done enough promotion? I fire off a few quick messages to remind my friends that it’s happening, just in case.
I have calmed the fuck down by the time PMX go on. They are just so staggeringly good it hurts. They are followed by Actionmen, who turn out a weird and wonderful blend of jazz and skate-punk. The combination gets me seriously excited to see them again tomorrow, and I dash off quickly to make sure I get some sleep in.
7am again and I’m up and trying to decide which band t-shirt is most appropriate. I get three coffees down my neck, argue over messenger about which route to take and set off in the car for Ipswich. With pick-ups and rest stops it’s around 5 ½ hrs door to door. It sounds dumb to put on a gig so far away from where I’m actually living, but The Smokehouse has been my second home for the last nine months and I’m keen to have a send-off. Party time.
Oddly, I seem to have calmed down a lot. I was expecting an anxiety bulldozer to flatten me today but, fuck it, I’ve done what I can. There’s no point in worrying about it.
There’s a niggling part of me that’s aware that I didn’t specify drums when I said ‘backline’, but I know Darko will bring the full shebang because they’re professionals. It’s incredibly unlikely to be a problem, and yet my mind can’t help revisiting the idea because it would be catastrophic if it did happen.
Still, when we’re half an hour past the load-in time and Darko haven’t turned up and I can’t get hold of them, I probably ought to be slightly concerned. Surprisingly, I’m not. They know what they’re doing, and when they do arrive it’s one of the quickest setups I’ve seen. And they brought drums.
Local pop-punks Pessimist hit the stage a few minutes late, but I’ve build heaps of time into the schedule so it’s not an issue. The room is packed for their set and everyone who’s not seen them before says they enjoyed it. PMX are up next, which is potentially the most exciting moment of the weekend for me. The sound out-front is spot on, so you can really appreciate their technical shreddery and it’s just bloody good fun. Actionmen go down really well too; there are plenty of people through the door to watch their crazy, funky, technical skate jazz nonsense.
I’m chuffed that a heap of people have turned up and they all appear to be having a great time, however my anxiety shadow is also already thinking of ways that I could improve for next time. I enjoy catching up with the friends who have come, however I’m also worried that I’m not spending enough time with people individually. My parents are here! And they don’t think I’ve wasted my life! Oddly, although the gig is well attended, only a handful of my close friends have shown up, so I start worrying whether I’ve done something to piss everyone off. It’s important to have something to worry about, right?
Finally, Darko hit the stage and play a complete belter – the crowd love it. They sound great; the stage is tiny but not too tiny. They manage a ten minute changeover, so when they go on everyone’s outside smoking, but the room quickly fills up and we even get a bit of a pit going down the front. It’s fucking awesome, everyone’s having a great time, and that makes me overwhelmingly happy. I even get hoisted up into the air (only slightly against my will) as crowd-surfing is a birthday tradition at The Smokehouse.
It’s been a great show and I needn’t have worried about the myriad concerns flitting through my mind. Still, my anxious, perfectionist self always feels like it could have been better. I’m looking forward to relaxing tomorrow, now that it’s off my mind.
The plan for Saturday is a ‘relaxing’ trip into London to catch The Menzingers at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
As it turns out, ‘relaxing’ was a tad over ambitious. We encounter some trouble with trainsat Euston, trouble with a fast-food joint taking 45 minutes to serve us, trouble checking into a hostel, trouble picking up our tickets. A lot of my anxiety revolves around punctuality and we’re late to the pub, which sends me into an internal spin. There are quite a few people I don’t know in our group too, which only stresses me out further. I think I disguised it from my friends relatively well.
We make it to the gig just as Cayetana start. They seem great, but the sound is so poor at Shepherd’s Bush Empire that it’s hard to hear what’s going on over rumbling bass. The venue is designed for acoustic theatrical performances, not loud rock shows. I can see the drummer hitting the toms and cymbals but all I can hear is the kick and snare. It’s shoddy.
Around this time my phone dies, which really ought to make me more worried. I actually has the opposite effect. Not having to have to face the 30 messages, the emails and the constant urge to refresh my Facebook feed leaves me surprisingly relaxed.
The lack of constant distraction and the time spent waiting in train stations and restaurants gives my mind time to wander and reflect on the experiences of the night before. I think it was a great gig. But was it? What if people only said that to make me feel better? Were there too many photographers? Were the bands happy? Was the sound okay? There is an endless list of minor, unfounded concerns circling through my head.
Things starts to pick up with PUP, though. My knowledge of the songs allows my imagination to fill the gaps left by the sound quality. My tension and anxiety starts to flood off me in waves, and I’m quickly reminded why I listen to punk music. I cannot worry about anything when I’m enjoying myself this much; the volume erases all my problems. Looking around the room, you can see it has the same effect on everybody else. They turn up the house lights as everyone screams along to Reservoir and If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You. Illuminated in white light, the people at the front look like a jumbled, heaving mass of grins and skin and hair flying. Everything suddenly seems more real.
A lot of what I’ve taken on in the last few days has triggered my anxiety, but it’s been worth it. I hide a lot of my worries apart from when I’m with my closest friends (who do a marvellous job of listening to me rant and argue with myself), but it’s always there. Lie music is the only failsafe solution to the brain-noise I live with.
Hopefully other promoters don’t have quite the same level of worry as me, however it is always a challenge to organise events, even though ultimately it’s just a room full of people enjoying some music. The hassle, the cost and the worry that comes with putting on shows is always going to be worth it. Just look how much fun those people at the front are having.
Article by Sarah Williams. Photos from Friday’s gig courtesy of Sam Dawes at This Is Noise. Explore our #MentallySound series for more articles about mental health in music.