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In the Van

Keeley Davis spends half his life on tour and it isn't as bad as you might think.

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"Out," is the lingo for a band on tour. If you are at a party attended by the local rock-star crowd, and you ask someone where Keeley is, the answer could be, "Engine Down is out this month," and you are expected to know what that means.

Davis was out for a total of seven months last year, and he expects to be on tour even more in 2003. He says he doesn't mind it so much. Touring is a lot different these days. It's not as bad as you might think. If you're smart about it, your band doesn't have to emerge after three weeks on the road from a GMC biodome looking like the cast of "Papillon."

Typical of a moderately successful band like Engine Down, Davis and crew take on touring as a business, with careful planning, a little more money and lot more experience than Davis had 10 years ago. Maybe it's not exactly the same mark of maturity, but when guitarist Jonathan Fuller celebrated his birthday too enthusiastically and got sick last tour he made sure his head was outside the van.

The point is, though, this blue, 15-passenger Ford Club Wagon XLT is a luxury vehicle compared to others many bands are happy to use. Fully loaded, from the air-conditioning to the Triton V10 engine (Davis says it makes mechanics drool), the van's few modifications include a cracked windshield that was damaged during the last tour, and skull-and-bones tops on the button locks.

With a U-Haul-type trailer pulling the gear, van space is reserved for the roomy comfort of six people: the four band members, a sound engineer and a "merch" (merchandising) person who mans the table of CDs, T-shirts and stickers at shows. When they toured Japan, Davis notes, they also had two drivers, a translator and a roadie — but a smaller van.

Even with employees to feed, the money is better now since Engine Down became a headlining act. Most of the guys get by without regular day jobs. And unlike Davis' earlier experiences, when each person worked out his own dinner at Taco Bell, amenities are taken care of by a combination of per diems from a band pool and agreements made with the venues along the tour.

Band members start each day with $10, a large portion of which is eaten up at "breakfast," an event that usually gets underway around 1 p.m. ("We have to wait for everyone to have their shower," Davis explains. "When you have six people, it takes a while.") The club owners usually take care of dinner; they either make it for them or give them enough money to dine elsewhere. Davis, thinking of the grungy clubs he's played in, says he prefers elsewhere.

The rest of the pooled money goes to merchandise, gas, equipment, van maintenance and tolls — which "kill us," Davis says. With all these expenses, Engine Down cannot afford an unbalanced checkbook. Fuller acts as band accountant, keeping tabs on the money with Excel spreadsheet software on his laptop.

Technology has done wonders for the touring musician. Computer-chip advancements have meant to the touring band what the development of the compass and waterproof matches must have meant to their seafaring forebears. They provide the entertainment, the directions, the schedule and the secretary and treasurer.

Davis says when he first started touring, van entertainment consisted of "a tape deck with front speakers." Now, he says, even when he has a cell phone jammed between his shoulder and ear, "I'm on the Internet through my laptop with a DVD playing."

But could such luxuries change Engine Down's sound? When touring was tough, Davis says, he could get so angry that he couldn't even perform by the time they made it to the club. Maybe it's a coincidence, but for the band's second CD, "To Bury Within a Sound," Davis officially switched from screaming his lyrics to singing them.

Supplied with instant messaging, cell phones and digital cameras, Engine Down is connected to the outside world whenever its members want to be. In constant touch with the people left behind, Davis says, "You just have to go without the physical."

You also have to go without some physical comforts. Technology has yet to help Davis avoid sleeping on a different floor every night, something many people would balk at. But Davis balks at the alternative, which he says he experienced working as a graphic artist within the confines of Circuit City two years ago. The cubicles and attention to punctuality got to him. "It reminded me of that movie 'Gattaca,'" Davis says. "I just couldn't take it."

Touring is a different story, he says — "you might have a bad day, but you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow." S

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