Road Tripping With Rock Stars

By James Joiner | June 12, 2017

David Burton is a legend, a hero whose name is whispered with respect and mystique by some of the biggest acts in the entertainment industry. You see, inside the music world exists its own canon of legendary figures, icons whose names are all but unknown to the general public. These are the faces that work behind the scenes – producers, promoters, engineers, road crew, designers, and managers – making sure you can see, and hear, your favorite band in your town. Every time you go to a concert for a couple hours of music, it’s delivered on the backs of monumental effort and countless road hours from an underground network of true professionals.

Burton is one of these folks, a tour manager, the lynchpin of any large tour, rough and coarse and deeply funny and caring at the same time, with who-knows-how-many thousands of miles under his belt. He’s charged with orchestrating all the moving parts, from getting gear in place to making sure artists are comfortable and their rider is met, all while seeing to it the money is collected and the following night’s shows are being properly prepared for. Equal parts parent, chief executive, bookkeeper, babysitter, and enforcer, Burton has a reputation for being tough but fair, efficient, and trustworthy. He’s also known for his endless bag of often sordid adventure stories and ability to coin a phrase, frequently dropping nuggets of wisdom that have come to be called “Burtonisms.”

We caught up with him in the midst of a tour with Scottish rockers Primal Scream to learn a little bit about what it takes to be the man in a notoriously unruly world, and to grab a few travel tips from a professional road warrior.

Burton in the House of Blues, Boston, with the Head and the Heart. Photo: James Joiner

So how did you get started as a tour manager? And what exactly do you do?

Good question on both counts. In London in the early 90’s I was neighbors with Steve Mack, the singer of That Petrol Emotion, who took me out to try to sell t-shirts for them on their big headlining tour and sleep on the floor. Around that time, I was also traipsing around the UK and Ireland in the back of some dubious transit vans, drinking, trying to meet girls, and pretending to take care of business.

Nowadays, things have obviously changed. You’re the enabler, the excitement coordinator, the cat wrangler, the accountant, the vibe ambassador, and security guard. You’re the freelance pall bearer.

What are some of the bands you’ve worked with? 

In no particular order: Primal Scream, Andrew Bird, Best Coast, Broken Social Scene, the Shins, Head and the Heart, Vaccines, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, JSBX, the Cribs, Franz Ferdinand, Swans, Suicide, Pan Sonic, Dirty Projectors, Beach House, Animal Collective, Cat Power, Peaches, Gluecifer, Hellacopters, Liars, Mooney Suzuki, Spoozys, Tarter, To Rococo Rot, Unsane, the Gunga Din, New Pornographers, Cut Copy… I feel like I’m missing a dozen or so

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Managing the melt down.

As you travel the world by plane and bus, what are the five things you always make sure to have with you?

Phone, laptop, power adapter, a good book, money / credit card.

First thing you do when you hit a new city or town and have some free time?

Get my 10,000 steps on and try to find something to eat that’s indicative of said town, whether it is al pastor in Mexico City, seafood in Portland, Maine, or ceviche in Santiago. I’m trying to hit all thirty major league ballparks, and enjoy minor league baseball, soccer, hockey, and basketball, as well as art galleries, museums, and art house cinemas

I bet you’ve got some favorite places in different cities, what are they? What’s a must do, and where?

J’s Oysters in Portland, Maine

The Brooklyn in Seattle

State Bird Provisions and Hog Island in San Francisco

Marliave in Boston

You were talking about food, right?

Rappahannock in Richmond.

Burton at work, backstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC. Photo: James Joiner

You’re the king of amazing stories. What’s your current favorite crazy anecdote? (names can be left out, of course)

Always on the spot with this one… How about the time a bunch of rock stars went to a bar, that we’ll call Lake Street, and closed the place down at 4am with great fanfare, then the contents of the bar, including a fairly famous Hollywood actress, spilled across the street to a tour manager’s house and carried on ‘til dawn? At which point said tour manager somehow managed to wake up, walk two miles to get a rental van, pick up his artists for their last show, and spend six hours driving from Williamsburg to Asbury Park

Perfect. As a guy who spend all his time with musicians, what music do you personally grab when hitting the road?

Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Angel Olsen, the Beatles, Courtney Barnett.

What’s your personal favorite city and why? Least favorite? 

Fluctuates with each visit, right? I have really been digging Portland, Maine of late, for the great food and ability to get fresh air. But probably Chicago for the total city experience, Tokyo for sensory overload, Sydney for the food and the view, Mexico City for the vibe, and Paris for a combination of all of the above.

How about favorite venue and why? Least favorite? 

930 Club for dotting all of the i’s and crossing all of the t’s and Ed Stack, and pretty much setting the table for the rest of the more modern American venues to follow. But in this day and age, honestly, Terminal 5, the Sinclair, Showbox, Crystal Ballroom, College Street Music Hall, Georgia Theatre, the Civic, Plaza Condos (where I’m at right now), Whelan’s in Dublin, Saxapahaw Theatre, Fox Oakland, Regent in LA, the Casbah in San Diego, Metropolis in Montreal, Thalia Hall, Empty Bottle , Horseshoe, First Avenue- (laughs), Paradiso, Pustervik, Rockefellers, Bataclan, the Columbus Theatre.

Least favorite, Lupo’s in Providence, Bogart’s in Cincinnati, and whatever the dump in Covington was I was just at.

What’s the most insane thing you’ve seen on a band’s rider? 

The most insane I see with riders is the drink trend amongst young musicians. Every year it’s something different – coconut water, Odwalla, smoothies, kombucha, cold brew – I’ve seen drugs regularly written into riders over the years, but we won’t talk about that.

What are the keys to staying sane when living on a bus for a long time?

Getting away from everyone , being able to sleep in your coffin (bus bed), and always having something good to read.

Go-to fast food, or food type, when on the road? 

Tacos, always tacos. Lunch, dinner, or after-show, leftover for breakfast on the bus, it’s tacos.

Favorite way to pass long hours of travel?

I read a lot, actual books, but don’t spend a lot of time in book stores on the road. I generally have a great cache of them at home.

Any tips for people looking to get a career as a tour manager?

Do something else! (laughs) Take care of yourself, and, in the beginning, take any job if you can afford to. The more people who know you, means you are worth knowing. Don’t sweat the small stuff.