I Bring The Music, You Bring The Food: Backstage With Amanda Palmer + Her Catering Fans
Amanda Palmer (center) at a backstage family meal in Australia
A couple of weeks ago, we learned how comedian Kathy Griffin enhances the quality of what she eats on the road by getting her more than half million Twitter followers to direct her to small mom-and-pop restaurants throughout the United States, preferably ones with a deep fat fryer. Now comes the tale of punk-cabaret singer and pescatarian Amanda Palmer (her Twitter profile lists her as "piano-slayer, singer, writer, blogger, lover, freak") who for the past three years has used the Internet to reach out to audience members to prepare tour meals for her and her crew. In return for cooking dinner, these amateur (and, occasionally, professional) caterers receive free tickets, merchandise and the opportunity to dine backstage with Palmer.
That Palmer came up with the idea of turning a stark backstage area into a staging ground for a family-style meal is no surprise: Both she and her graphic novel-writing husband, Neil Gaiman, were recently crowned as "The king and queen of cloud-enabled process art" by music critic Ann Powers in an article that detailed, among other things, the enterprising new ways the couple keep their fan community in the loop. (Check out West Coast Sound's pieces on the Palmer-Gaiman wedding and Palmer's DIY advice.)
But as anyone who has ever choked down a culinary misfire at a nightmare dinner party knows, "home-cooked" doesn't necessarily mean tasty. Which got us musing about all sorts of things including: What's Palmer's ratio of elaborate, finely conceived can-I-have-seconds? feasts to well-meaning stomach-churners? Given her tour calendar - October through December of last year she was traversing the States with her band The Dresden Dolls and has been barnstorming through Australia and New Zealand since January - she is now perhaps the world's leading expert on what her team calls "fan-prepared food." Hungry for answers, we sent some simply-put questions to her by e-mail. To read her responses, turn the page.
Squid Ink: When did you start reaching out to fans for food on the road? What inspired the idea?
Amanda Palmer: I actually started reaching out for food as a big, organized project on my first solo tour, in 2008. But, some background: fans had been bringing food, unbidden, to shows for ages, since The Dresden Dolls always made a point of signing and meeting fans after shows, and that often included people bringing gifts of every variety. Big, delicate pieces of art? Not so practical. It amazes me that people think it's a good idea to give a touring musician a 3-foot framed-glass piece of art on the road. Food is practical. We would eat it.
So when I went on tour in support of the "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" tour, I was working with a much smaller budget than I'd had with The Dolls, and I'd brought 4 crazy Australian actors, a cellist and a violinist and a small tech crew with me. I knew I couldn't afford to put us all up in hotels and feed us every day, because I literally didn't have the money. But I had endless faith in the fan base to support us. So I hit my blog, told everyone we needed places to sleep and food to eat, and I put my team on fielding a daily plan of who was going to feed and host us.
And for months we slept every night in a different stranger's house, and ate whatever was brought to us at the venue in exchange for tickets, t-shirts and love. In order to pay my actors, we had a section of the show every night where we passed the hat around and I gave an impassioned speech They usually collected about $100 each, which was far more than I'd have been able to pay them.
SI: What do you like about backstage family meals?
AP: There's a ton of beautiful things about being fed by someone local. The alternative, and what happens on most mid-sized rock tours, is that the venue provides some standard, soulless meal, or you get take-out from a local restaurant. There's something incredible about being FED by someone; it connects you, physically, with the literal place you're standing in. It also saves a LOT of money. If you do the math quickly: a decent take-out hot dinner in the states costs about $20 if you include an appetizer and a tip and tax. Multiply that by 10 people ($200 a night) and then multiply that by a tour that has a run of 40 shows. Having your fans bring the food every night can then save your tour about $8,000. That's a lot of dough.
I calculated that between the food and lodging on my "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" tour, the fans probably saved me a collective $50,000. I have my blog, twitter, and a bunch of really helpful people to thank for that. But it's also wise to remind people that this was all happening before Twitter and social-network mayhem as well: we spent the first few years of the band sleeping on floors, and we always managed to find something, even pre-internet. People just... helped.
SI: Can you describe a typical dinner, ie. someone in your team arranges the meal, then the fan/fans show up at a pre-arranged time with enough food for ten or twelve people. Do you find a table and eat together? Do you eat buffet style? How much time does the meal typically last?
AP: This is the hard part, because we NEVER know what the day is going to be like or whether we're going to be able to spend quality time with people. The basic story goes like this: I write a blog before I leave for tour and put the call out for food, and then link to that blog on twitter so all of my followers see it. WE include an email address on the blog that points to Hayley, who works for me, and Hayley goes over all the options and selects the best (and sanest-looking) option.
She then sends that person a FAQ that includes information about WHAT and HOW to bring food to a venue (we need plates and flatware!), and what the current crew is eating (sometimes we have lots of vegans, etc) and puts them in touch with the tour manager. They show up at the venue right around the time we're finishing soundcheck (and usually get to watch) and the tour manager sets them up backstage and food gets spread out wherever we have a table.
You'd be amazed - most venues don't have tables and chairs backstage, so the rare nights we get to actually all sit and eat together are rare. Last week in Byron Bay, Australia, the food was made by a girl and her mom -- they brought an ELECTRIC GRILL -- and we all (me, her and her mom, and my entire support band) sat on chairs out in the venue parking lot because it was a beautiful day. Sometimes it's awful and we're in such a rush that I only get to shovel food into my mouth, express profound thanks, and run off to an interview. But people are allowed to hang out backstage and watch their food get devoured by whatever crew, band and other entourage are lurking, so it's generally pretty satisfying.
SI: Do you have to be careful about what you eat on a day when you're performing? Do you explain this to the fan who is making you food?
AP: Yes, and this is difficult too. We ask people to keep food on the really light and healthy side and they almost always do. I have to be careful about how much I eat right before a show so I don't get sluggish on stage. I made the mistake once in the early days of The Dresden Dolls of eating a MEGA-BURRITO before a show in Philadelphia and almost feel asleep on stage. That is a lesson I have carried with me. But I also need to take my crew's needs into account - most of them are much more hungry and more carnivorous than I am, and I want them to be happy, too. So we try to ask for a variety.
SI: How does the food vary within the United States? Can you describe a dish and/or meal that was very particular to the region?
AP: Oh god... we've seen some magical food. People love sharing their local secrets and recipes (and beers!). One of my very favorite meals was brought to me in New Orleans, when I was touring there last year with Vermillion Lies. This guy brought us all completely gourmet food he'd cooked exclusively from things he'd grown in his organic garden, including dessert and an organic ale his friend had home-brewed. People have brought me homemade mead, absinthe, wine... you name it.
The only regret I have was drinking that absinthe... I think it might have poisoned me for a day or two. And frankly, I'd left it hanging around in my apartment on top of my stove for a few years before I drank it... that might not have been wise. But generally things are safe. My last show in Chicago was fed by a honest-to-god professional SUSHI chef -- he brought an array of about 20 kinds of unique sushi rolls from his restaurant and we practically died from sushi overdose. And one of my absolute favorites was down in Florida. We were invited to stay in the house of a girl in Miami whose mother spoke no English and who taught me how to pound my own tortilla... things like that keep tour interesting. She also gave me my own Bible.
SI: Has a meal ever gone wrong? What happened?
AP: Oh, good god. Well, luckily, about 99 out of 100 fan-cooked meals have been incredible, and the people who have cooked and brought it have been awesome, funny, creative, cool people. But there was one famous incident that still gets re-enacted amongst the crew and actors from my solo tour. It wasn't the only the food that was memorable, it was mostly the attitude of the girl who brought it. It was a simple salad... which wasn't nearly enough to feed a crew of 11 people that night -- but the girl was so spooky and sad and simply sat on a chair, staring at us all and unable to engage in an actual conversation. I'd never really encountered this before. She just SAT there, looking like she was about to cry, or possibly murder someone.
So I did what I could; I hugged her very long and hard and sent her out to watch the show. Once she'd left the dressing room, we all looked at each other and said " Well. THAT was odd, wasn't it?". We ordered take-out that night. But we also ate her salad. I found her after the show and tried hugging her again, but I don't think she was reachable, that girl It's funny. I feel like all of my fans are my children, sometimes, and I worry about them.
SI: How many times have you been asked, "Aren't you scared to eat a stranger's food?" What's your answer?
AP: Actually, nobody really asks me that. Anybody who knows me and my fanbase knows it's a silly question: we all trust each other implicitly. And...don't you eat a stranger's food every time you go into a restaurant? And from what I've heard about what goes on backstage in restaurants, I'd trust food out of one of my fan's kitchens before most random places who don't actually care about me.
SI: Right now you're touring overseas. Is there anything memorably different about the meals? (Both in terms of what is served and/or the vibe of the meals)
AP: The Australian and New Zealanders definitely score HIGH on the food scale, we've been eating like kings here. Last night in Wellington we had a Mexican fan who runs a restaurant bring a really fantastic spread that fused Mexican cooking with New Zealand ingredients (there was a fantastic mango and sweet potato salsa... that was just KILLER). But the food is really good everywhere, since we have the right fans. We've gotten lavish spreads in out-of-the-way places like St. Louis and Perth and food that's a little less inspired in restaurant capitals like London and New York... it really just depends who's baking.
The thing I've learned lately about fusing rock touring and twitter/blogging: if you need it, ASK, and don't be ashamed to take it. In the world of the New Music Industry, cutting out the middleman works at every level, you just have to get over your perceived "awkward" factor and be willing to do a little extra email to save a lot of money and connect a lot deeper with the locals and your fans. People LOVE helping musicians and artists on the road: I'm happy to see that more musicians are helping themselves to that generosity instead of feeling like they have to hide backstage in order to appear cool and mysterious.
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