Tegan and Sara Guitar Tech Guru Allen Hannigan is Their Backstage Man With a Plan
Today’s post starts what will be an ongoing series of ‘behind the scenes’ look at life in the world of music, from the perspective of someone other than the folks onstage creating all the racket (‘racket’ of course being hipster doofus lingo for music that babies are made to).
Before we get down to the nitty gritty of today’s post, a wee behind the scenes back story about the interview subject, Allen Hannigan. Allen and I have known each other for decades (god, has it really been that long?), having been school mates at a very young age. After Allen’s family moved to a new city we shared a good friend-in a completely non-sexual kind of way-Jon Leney (who also happens to be Allen’s cousin and is one of my nearest and dearest pals). You might also recognize Jon’s name from his work here at That’s Funky Awesome…
Now that we have the basics established, down to the matter at hand. For the past few years, Hannigan has been the go-to guy for anything equipment related for Tegan and Sara, the Calgary born identical twin sisters who, besides having the power to look eerily similar to one another with very little effort, also manage to write some incredible nuggets of pop goodness. Over their six album musical lifespan they’ve made a name for themselves the old fashioned way-writing great songs and then showcasing them for eager fans through nose to the grindstone touring. And that’s where Hannigan comes into the picture, with his official title in the Tegan and Sara organization of Guitar Tech and Stage Manager. It takes a lot of work to make a concert or live appearance run smoothly, and Hannigan is the secret sauce in the choicest of menu items found in the Tegan and Sara rock-eteria. Now, before we get to the good stuff, here’s a link for all you gear heads out there who love to dissect the equipment needs of bands on the road. The site is MixOnline.com, and clicking the link will take you to a thorough breakdown of all the equipment that goes into a typical Tegan and Sara live event-including pictures of today’s interview guest Allen.
That’s Funky Awesome: So how does a guy from Southwestern Ontario end up in British Columbia under the employ of Tegan & Sara?
Allen Hannigan: Well, I’ve been living here in Victoria (British Columbia) since 1994 and it’s been a long road of playing in different bands, networking and just being in the local music scene. A number of years ago I met a man named Ted Gowans who joined us in a Radiohead cover band we started. We ended up becoming really close friends and he eventually had an audition in Vancouver for a band called Tegan and Sara. He got the gig and immediately left to tour the So Jealous record. In 2007, I met Tegan in Vancouver while attending a Rentals show and ended up sleeping on her couch that night. Over drinks that night after the show I offered my services as a guitar tech on their upcoming tour for their new record The Con. Months later, I was invited to a group dinner in downtown Victoria with Tegan and Sara and their management and tour manager. I didn’t know why I was invited so I was a bit nervous and excited at the same time. Shortly after that I was called for a meeting with one of their managers Nick Blasko and after a brief discussion he hired me on the spot. I had never been a guitar tech in my life, let alone with an established band, and 4 years later I’m still going strong.
TFA: Your role backstage with the band focuses primarily on guitars and all the good times that go along with them. Is the guitar as fun and sexy to babysit as it looks to play?
AH: The sexy part definitely describes the instruments that Tegan and Sara choose to play. They have great taste in clothes, hairstyles, and guitars. The fun part sometimes rings true, when things aren’t broken that is. I really do enjoy the work itself and when the instruments sound their best during the show it gives me faith in what I’m doing.
TFA: How many shows a year do you average with Tegan & Sara?
AH: It varies from year to year but on average between 100 – 125 shows.
TFA: What’s the longest length of time you’ve spent away from home to be on tour with the band?.
AH: Five and a half weeks, in Europe, on a double decker bus, with the opening band. Not that I remember exactly.
TFA: What’s the biggest venue you’ve worked with the band?
AH: Hollywood Bowl with Death Cab for Cutie, 17,000 people. Amazing!
TFA: Tegan & Sara have played their fair share of television gigs. How does a television studio appearance differ from a concert performance as far as set up goes?
AH: Well, first of all, it is FAR more stressful than doing a live venue show. You have two minutes to get the band set up (length of the actual commercial break) and they cut back to the intro of the band as if it were a live show. If there is a “trainwreck” with the song then the band can redo it once, but otherwise the little things are fixed post production. They have risers and carts for drum kits and keyboard stations to be pre set up and rolled out so that saves a lot of time, and of course the crew that work those shows are total pros so it all goes smoothly.
TFA: Are you involved in any recording studio work with the band?
AH: I’m not involved in the actual studio work but I did help with setup during the pre-production of their latest album Sainthood here in Victoria. I also worked on a DVD shoot that was done in Vancouver that is to be released sometime soon.
TFA: What does the average day entail for you when you’re touring? For example, what time do you arrive at the venue, and how long after the show is over are you packed up and out the door for the night?
AH: My average day really depends on the type of tour we are doing. When we tour North America we are on tour buses so typically we roll into the city early in the morning after driving all night from the last venue. We usually load in to the venue between 11 am and 12 noon and it takes about twenty minutes to have all the gear in. The entire stage is set up in about an hour and a half and all the instruments are line checked to make sure all is well. The band will soundcheck usually around 4 pm and our shows typically start at 8 pm with the support act and then Tegan and Sara at 9 pm. Showtime is usually about two hours and then we can be packed up in forty-five minutes to an hour and loaded out in about forty-five minutes. We then travel all night and do it all again the next day, sometimes for six or seven days in a row. I’m exhaused just thinking about it.
TFA: How many instruments are you looking after during the course of a show?
AH: Lately we have had another guitar tech as well as myself so I am responsible for about five or six guitars and two basses during the show. On tours when it is just me it has been up to 10 guitars or so, as well as two or three keyboards depending on the configuration.
TFA: Let’s say a string is broken mid-song. Will the girls be looking to you for a quick change instrument swap, or will they try and finish the song with their guitar as is?
AH: My very first show with the band, Sara had only one acoustic guitar and she was tuning it herself for a song and broke a string. I went out and took it from her, brought it to my station and changed the string while she told a story and brought it back out. That was one of two times it has ever happened in over four years of touring. The other time was in NYC and Tegan broke a string mid song, I had her other electric guitar in my hand and had just tuned it. She turned and looked at me and I knew right away so I just calmly walked out with the other guitar while the band vamped and we seemlessly swapped guitars. The crowd went crazy and it was actually a really cool moment (not that I ever want that to happen again).
TFA: How many guitar strings do you think you change during the course of one tour? Some bands like to have new strings after every show-what do Tegan & Sara prefer?
AH: I change strings for them every couple of shows. They use really heavy guage strings so they last longer than lighter guage would. I know their instruments really well at this point so I can feel when the strings need to be changed. It also depends on weather conditions if we’re doing a lot of outdoor shows.
TFA: Do you have to deal with any special tunings?
AH: Both Tegan and Sara have special tunings on many songs. Sara has the more creative tunings on a few songs. They also use a lot of capos as well as dropped strings, like the A string tuned down to a G.
TFA: Besides Tegan and Sara both playing guitar, sometimes you also have multi-instrumentalist Ted Gowans picking one up as well. With three guitars onstage plus a bass, how hectic is it for you trying to make sure everything is running smoothly and doing what it’s supposed to do?
AH: Murphy’s Law definitely comes into effect during shows it seems. Generally if something goes haywire there will be more to follow. When we have two guitar techs on the road I look after Tegan and the bass player and the other tech takes care of Sara and Ted. It takes a lot of pressure off me when I have some backup. On tours when it is just me things can be pretty stressful sometimes. I would say though that over 90 percent of the time shows go off without a hitch (if you’ve got some wood, knock on it).
TFA: Does the band do their own soundcheck, or does that fall under your department as well?
AH: I’m always there for soundcheck to help with whatever comes along. Sometimes they’ll change up stage plots and things like that so it’s always good to be close by.
TFA: Now, for some quick-fire questions…
Best Tegan & Sara show you’ve been a part of?
AH: One in Munich, Germany. The crowd afterwards were louder than the show on the db (decibel) meter.
TFA: How about the worst?
AH: Worst day for me was a venue in England when we carried all the gear up six flights of stairs.
TFA: Artist you’ve been in the same room with that left you feeling all gushy inside (gushy is a good thing, BTW)?
AH: I went to Neil Young’s house for a party before the Bridge School Benefit. I shook his hand and had a conversation with him in his own living room. No big deal.
TFA: You’ve seen and heard a lot of bands during your time on the road. Who stands out as the best live act, in your opinion?
AH: I would have to say Death Cab for Cutie really impresses me.
TFA: And finally, which Tegan & Sara live clip should we use to finish off the interview?
AH: Oh boy, pick one! I love the clips of them on Youtube just doing their hilarious banter.
Ask and you shall receive, Allen. Before the video, though, why don’t you (not you, Allen. You, the reader.) stop by iTunes and check out more Tegan and Sara. If you still require a little more convincing, the following live clip featuring the tune Hop A Plane should be the icing on the cake.