Everybody knows an ax-wielding or drumstick-slinging road dog, a bandsman who flits around the country bringing music to the midnight masses. But for every handful of musicians rolling down the highway, there's someone else whose job it is to keep the roll in check.
Meet master tour manager Robert Holland.
It's possible that you already have. When the world wanderer isn't barking his way into Jimmy Fallon's studio parking lot with Dinosaur Jr.'s tour bus before 6 a.m. in New York City or begging hotel clerks in random towns to OK a late checkout for the smoke-stained dudes who checked in five hours before, Holland kicks around the rock clubs in Kansas City and Lawrence.
If he happens to be playing doorman, as he frequently did at Czar Bar last winter, he might actually kick you out — in the nicest way possible. With his broad shoulders, loop earrings and invariably dark attire, Holland can pull off the imposing bouncer vibe, but he's got the sweetest smile.
For more than a decade, Holland, who has never played in a band, has performed various other roles associated with live music — merch dude, venue muscle, roadie and tour manager. He has worked with dozens of traveling acts, including Dropkick Murphys, Left Alone and, most recently, Dinosaur Jr.
Holland's career began in the late 1990s when a venue security boss in Lawrence decided to help the hopelessly devoted teenage concertgoer save a little scratch. "He saw me all the time, paying for all these shows," Holland says.
And so a deal was struck: Holland could get in free, but he had to work.
"I stood behind barricades and doors," he recalls. "And one night, they were short on stagehands. One of my buddies was like, 'Load out!' And that's when I realized pushing stage cases was really awesome."
As he helped out-of-town acts set up night after night, taking instructions from their managers, Holland had another realization. "I kept seeing the same guys come through with bands," he says. "I figured you could actually make a living doing it."
At some point, Holland impressed some rappers so much that they asked for his number. When they finally called him about three years later, he hopped on a bus as a merch guy and started learning the rules of the road.
Number one: The bus driver is your best friend. Holland says he wouldn't have survived that first rowdy, sleepless stint, if not for the seasoned man behind the wheel who told him, "If you can last six months, you can do anything."
With that particular crew, Holland lasted through fistfights and a 34-day stint during which the band and crew saw the inside of only one hotel room. And he got promoted when the tour manager suddenly quit.
After the rap group, Holland headed out with various punk and rock bands, picking up more survival tactics — both personal (avoid bands that use a stand-up bass) and universal (hotels with laundry facilities are best).
He hasn't always dug the sounds emanating from the acts he has traveled with, but something about the challenge of herding musicians from one town to the next, plus the occasional thrill of getting to hang out with people such as Ice T, hooked Holland on the business of touring. "It's just like if I worked anywhere," he says. "The only difference is, our office moves every day. And people really like to come to our office, I guess."
Two years ago, when Dinosaur Jr. rang, Holland thought it was a prank. Just days prior, he and a friend had concluded that the alt-rock band had broken up for good.
Hardly. The recently reunited Dinosaur Jr., which released its first album when Holland was 7 years old, was poised for a comeback tour and needed his services.
Holland had heard that guitarist J. Mascis could be difficult to work with, but as he took off with the 25-year-old band across the United States and Europe, he found that he had a lot in common with the old rockers. "They're all great guys," Holland says. "I've done the rock-and-roll tours where it's drugs. Or you're looking for your drummer who you can't find, and you have to leave because you have a 10-hour drive. With these guys, it's almost boring and family. But I like it."
And who wouldn't like the perks of working with a higher-profile band that makes national TV appearances and attracts fans such as Henry Rollins (to whom Holland sheepishly offered earplugs in Los Angeles)? Dinosaur Jr. may not be the biggest band in the world, but it's an enviable gig.
At 31, Holland says he's not above driving 24 hours straight to do the job that he describes as "trying to make the band's life easier without them even knowing." But he's too old to sleep on floors. And he doesn't plan to roam forever. "I don't want to be that 60-year-old dude who doesn't know how to live a normal life because I'm not getting my catering delivered to me," Holland says.
But there's enough time between now and 60 to squeeze in a seven-week tour of North America with Dinosaur Jr. — which is exactly what Holland is embarking on next month.