Photographer Tommy Calderon on the road with Signals Midwest

by Tommy Calderon

It is the twinge of back pain waking up after little sleep on a floor in some random state in some random town. It is the twinge that occasionally comes back once you’re home comfortably in your own bed, a reminder of your past time on the road and a call that reminding you the road is still waiting for you, waiting for more.

For much of September and beginning of October, I was on tour with Signals Midwest, a punk band from Cleveland, Ohio, documenting, being an extra set of hands and being general company for the band.

Instead of describing every show and as many moment of the tour, I’ve been tasked with describing what the tour was like for myself personally and what it’s like as a photographer, not to worry, I’ve told Signals Midwest’s story and you can find out how to read it at the end of this article.

I joined a few shows into their three week-long east coast tour in Boston, Massachusetts. It would be the longest I’ve ever spent on the road with any band and turn out to go by the fastest any tour I’ve been on.

I’ve traveled with Signals Midwest before but this tour was particularly special, it was the tour for their new album At this Age and as a photographer, I saw it as an opportunity to document a very important part of this band’s history and that is what I wanted to do for the band, chronicle it so they could look back on this point in time and remember this tour by.

The job never truly stops when I’m on the road. I’m constantly trying to figure out a narrative in the photographs and video I take.  When it all comes down to it, however, as much as I try to figure out a narrative as the tour goes on, the photographs in the end cancel out any sort of preconceived idea of what the story really is. Early mornings, long drives, load-ins, shows, load-outs, evenings, highs and lows and everything in between it’s all part of it and it adds up in it’s own organic way.

Let’s set things straight, photographing a band on tour isn’t about me, it’s about the band.

Max Stern, lead singer and guitarist of Signals Midwest booked the tour himself, something many bands have to do nowadays. The tour, as a result of DIY, ranged from basement shows to venues with the works which meant a constant change and little knowledge as to what to expect. It kept things exciting. Whether it was a kitchen in Athens, Ohio or a batting cage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the notion that every night would be different kept everything fresh.

Touring is great. The constant travel, the new daily destinations, new friends made and sense of wonder are addictive.

Days typically went as the following: Wake up around 9 or 10 a.m. pack up, maybe have breakfast if we have time and if not gas station or lunch in a few hours it is. The drives, long or short, were filled with chatting, listening to music, podcasts, draining your cellphone battery, sleep and audiobooks. Once we arrive at our destination we load out the gear into the venue or grab food, the order changes depending on how soon we’d arrive to where we would need to be that day. On the off chance we had a short drive that gave us free time, we’d grab coffee and explore. Days off weren’t really a thing for this tour. Even when we did have a “day off” it was filled with a recorded live session, like one they did with Daytrotter. Shows were always fun. Even if the turnout got us down a little or there was a strange vibe in the end we made the best of it. Post show we’d load out, go to the house or hotel we were staying out for the evening and crash, well after editing photos and maybe a shower I’d crash usually around 3 or 4 a.m.

With all the highs there will certainly always be lows to any tour. For tour with Signals Midwest, lows were kept at a minimum but with some little van troubles, potential show cancellations that were saved at the last minute, exhaustion and stress levels rising at times, it truly shed light on how tour isn’t as glamorous as many people think it is. Signals Midwest have been a band for eight years now and touring just about as long so they’ve learned how to cope with these issues very well, which is why I can’t say anything went horribly awry, things just got a little shaky sometimes. They’re communicative good dudes that care about each other, what can I say? They do it right and problem solve well.

In an article I was recently interviewed for I said, “You could be the best damn photographer on earth, but if you’re an asshole or selfish you won’t get very far.” Being a photographer is only part of my role when I’m on tour it almost comes second at times. I genuinely care about the members of Signals Midwest, those being, Loren, Max, Jeff and Steve along with the fill in members they had for part of the tour, Josh and Ryan. I think it’s most important to have the band’s trust and truly make an effort to be friends with any band in a situation like this. I guess, what I’m trying to say is that, for anyone that wants to travel with any band trust and friendship are needed before anything else.

The first question to anyone coming home from tour is asked is most likely “How was tour?” The impulse answer is almost always “It was great!” or “It was lots of fun!” While these answers may be true, they certainly are oversimplifications of a seemingly simple yet  complicated question. The best time to ask this question is a week after that person is back and they will tell you “life changing,” or at least I would. A tour experience doesn’t really set in until “normal life” once again ensues. I learned a lot about myself, the band, about the world, made new friends, saw old friends and feel much more connected to the world than I have before.

When I look back on the photos, I can still hear the music, the voices, the conversations, smell the cheap beer and feel that twinge of back pain.

Published in the November 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine