Funny Thing Happened On) The Road To Rock Stardom
by Tammy Moore
The story I am
going to tell you today is one that is close to my heart.
Meet Kevin Briers. His is a story of a starry-eyed kid who
once dreamed of playing the guitar while listening to icons
like Randy Rhodes, Jimmy Page, and Jimmy Hendrix, but due
to some bizarre circumstances instead learned the mechanics
of the instrument so well that he became a man who has spent
the last fourteen years touring with and ‘teching’
for some of the biggest names in rock. The catalog of names
Kevin can list on his resume are, let’s say, inspiring.
There is Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Motley Crue, Stained,
Linkin Park, Kelly Willis, Skatenigs, Nudeswirl, Mind Funk,
Charlie Sexton, Butthole Surfers, Helmet, Prince, Guns N’
Roses, and Filter. A fool for late sixties and early seventies
classic rock, he is at the top of his game.
the age of 33 he owns his own home, a gorgeous 2000 Harley-Davidson
Road King that he is customizing himself and a beloved Great
Dane named Base. His official job title is Backline Technician
and while the pay is good, the fringe benefits aren’t
too shabby, either. At least one Thanksgiving has been spent
with Trent Reznor at his home in New Orleans. Kevin was approached
by one of his rock idols, Nikki Sixx, to help him in the design
of a signature series bass that Gibson Guitars was offering
to manufacture. After Sixx and Gibson approved his designs,
the illustrious Nikki Sixx Blackbird Bass was created and
now rests in the hands of many fortunate bass players throughout
the world. Kevin has toured Europe twenty-one times in addition
to touring Japan, Australia, and New Zealand six or seven
times (who’s counting?). He has toured South America
five times and the United States and Canada at least fifty
times. The view from his front row seat has allowed him visibility
to the backstage shenanigans that are par for the course in
the world of rock and roll touring. He has been witness to
at least a couple of now legendary episodes in rock history.
Like the strange night that Marilyn Manson was summoned to
Anton LaVey’s home in San Francisco. As the band and
crew waited on the bus outside, they were surrounded by security,
solemn figures dressed in black trench coats and beanies,
sporting headsets. Manson entered the house alone. The curtains
were drawn and after awhile, Manson re-emerged, boarded the
bus and told all present that inside he had been ordained
as a minister in the Church of Satan. The hysterical part
was that he had a laminated card, signed by LaVey, to prove
caught Kevin at his home here in Austin two days before he
was to leave town to join Puddle of Mudd for tour rehearsals.
This particular ‘leg’ of the new tour begins in
two weeks in Europe and will likely last until December. When
Kevin works for a band, he generally works for 12 –
18 months, and the entire length of that time is split up
into ‘legs’ of the tour. One leg might be six
weeks in Europe; one leg might be six weeks in the States,
was introduced to rock music as a baby when his parents taught
the Beatles’ song lyrics to him in the form of nursery
rhymes. As a teenager living in San Antonio between ’81
and ’84, it became the dream of this kid and all his
friends to be rock guitar players and to do so with styles
that would match that of their musical heroes. He begged his
parents for years to buy him a guitar, and after they reluctantly
did so, he then began begging for guitar lessons. It took
some time to convince them. So much so that by the time they
agreed to pay for the lessons, Kevin had completely torn his
guitar apart. Having the coveted instrument in his possession
but no knowledge of how to play it had turned his curiosity
towards learning how the instrument worked. He then became
fascinated with all kinds of guitars. He began to notice the
different kinds of set ups that manufacturers used and how
various guitar styles made each instrument tonally unique.
As he began learning the inner workings of guitars, many of
his friends started playing them.
group of friends formed a band called Pariah and it was their
bassist, the much loved and missed Sims Ellison, who first
had faith and hired Kevin on as a tech/roadie when the band
was starting out. The band felt that Kevin should understand
the sounds they were trying to create, so they spent hours
teaching him basic guitar chords and basic player skills and
taught him about amplifiers and effects and the way that everything
worked. When Pariah decided to relocate to Austin in the early
90’s, Kevin made the move with them. In addition to
working with Pariah, he began finding work with local bands
here that were enjoying regional success such as Near Dark
and Hush Scarlett. It was then that he realized he could build
a career he would love with the knowledge and skills he was
acquiring while working for these diverse bands.
that time, in addition to managing Hush Scarlett, yours truly
was working as an assistant to Kelly Willis’ manager,
Carlyne Majer, and Willis was preparing to tour in support
of her MCA Nashville release, Bang Bang. When asked if I knew
a good guitar tech, I knew just who to call. Kevin accepted
the job with Willis and after touring sixteen states knew
that this was definitely the life he wanted. He loved the
travel, being part of a crew, and the feel of life on the
road. He likened it to running away and joining the circus,
and this new world felt great.
returning home he took jobs with the Skatenigs and others.
It was during this time that Kevin’s friend Danny Loner
of SKREW was recruited by Nine Inch Nails to play guitar,
and Loner asked him to come along and work as his personal
tech on the NIN Self Destruct tour in support of The Downward
Spiral. Trent Reznor was so impressed with Kevin that he recommended
him to Marilyn Manson when that band did their first headlining
tour and the rest, as they say, is history. Sure, a gypsy
existence such as his requires personal sacrifices and occasional
bouts with homesickness but the rewards are priceless. I was
curious about his seemingly surreal life and his thoughts
on the music biz today. This is what he had to say.
At the national level, who are the people that make up the
Usually, it’s a production manager or band manager,
backline techs, light crew, sound crew, a production assistant,
truck drivers, bus drivers, riggers, and carpenters. In most
tours that I do there is about 20-25 people that are the [core]
crew and usually 75 to 100 people are hired on for each new
leg. That’s a standard tour.
What is the hierarchy of a road crew?
I have a variety of bosses…the tour manager, the production
manager, and the band.
What is the difference between what you do for artists at
the club level and artists at the national level?
Well, artists at the club level don’t have the funds
or the budget to purchase the gear that they would probably
like to use. They can get by with a few effects pedals, a
couple of instruments, an amp, and a cabinet. Guys on large-scale
tours are required to have different amplifiers that produce
different kinds of sounds, multiple effects. Their sounds
can be very complex so they have to have a lot of options.
How important is it to use techs at the club level?
If you’re a local band doing a showcase for a record
label and you want to hire somebody to insure that your guitars
all have fresh strings, your drums all have fresh heads, drums
are tuned, guitars are tuned and working correctly, amplifiers
sound right, no shorts in any cables, I think it’s very
important. It all depends on what you’re doing, where
you’re trying to go, and the impression you’re
trying to make. If you’re out playing every Monday at
Steamboat just because you enjoy playing and you don’t
really care about getting signed, I would recommend going
to a local shop, like The Custom Shop on South Lamar, and
taking your equipment in there once a month and having them
Describe a typical backstage set-up and scene.
Oh, boy! Again, it depends on the tour you’re on. If
you’re with Motley Crue, expect there to be a lot of
strippers, a lot of debauchery…nowadays not a whole
lot of drinkin’ but some fun to be had. If you’re
out on tour with, say, Prince…not really a whole lot
going on, but on all tours that I do, my backstage involves
trucks, stagehands, a stage manager yelling, and boxes moving.
It’s not much of a party for us but if we’re done
early and the party is still going on, oh yeah, we’re
in the party! But other than that, it’s load out, close
the truck doors, and party on the bus if there’s a day
off the next day and sometimes even if there isn’t a
day off ahead.
Do artists today typically indulge in the excesses of rock
that were prevalent in previous decades?
Yeah…especially on the national level but if you notice,
a lot of these bands don’t have the longevity of the
bands from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s…even
the 90’s. A lot of these bands come out and they have
one or two hits and they’re gone. The record companies
have gotten to the point where they only sign one or two album
deals. Back in the day it was five or six album contracts.
Record companies can only risk one or two contracts. So much
depends on your second record because a band can have two
or three great hits in one year, and if that next record doesn’t
have anything going for it, that band is done. What happens
is that a lot of bands spend numerous years before they’re
signed to a record label working on songs, and when the pressure
is on for them to write a second record a lot of them can’t
do it because they don’t have those five or six years
[to write new songs].
So it’s not all sex, drugs, and rock and roll for modern
artists because they can’t afford to indulge the way
bands once could because this is their shot and they have
to take it seriously?
Yeah…a lot of them do get wrapped up in the whole ‘rock
star’ aspect of it. But a lot of them are wise enough
to see the bands that influenced them growing up not around
anymore. So they know that their career can be very short
lived. And a lot of it is the attention span of kids these
days. You know, fads change and all of sudden something new
is in. They have to be serious and they have to keep putting
product out in front of their fans.
Knowing all that you know now…what is the best piece
of advice you could give to aspiring artists in this crazy
pursuit of success in music?
Wow…work REALLY hard and don’t give up. Don’t
let any negative influence or situation stop you from pursuing
your goal. Because it’s just like anything you do in
life…you want to be the best at it and if you want to
be successful at it, you’ve got to work hard. If you
want to pursue this style of life and the career you are interested
in, don’t let anything stop you. It’s a very rare
thing for anyone to have something handed to them. People
don’t get to be successful by sitting on their ass and
taking negative influence into account and dwelling on it.
People get to where they’re at because of positive energy
and positive influences in their lives and always looking
may recognize the final question I asked of Kevin from my
last column. I will be asking for the best piece of advice
each behind-the-scenes pro I interview can offer to aspiring
artists, and I, for one, am already starting to see a pattern
emerging here. The message appears to lie in perseverance,
does it not? Congratulations to my dear friend, Kevin Briers,
on the heights your hard work and determination have taken
you to. You’ve come a long way, baby, and please keep
sending me those postcards! To everyone else, apply what you’ve
learned, keep reaching for the dream, and check out THE ROAD
TO ROCK STARDOM next time. Remember knowledge is power! On
second thought, I will leave you with the truth which is that
applied knowledge is power.