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An Interview with Jeff Van Zandt

by Lois O'Brien

During my last visit to Austin, Texas, for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, I had the opportunity to interview Jeff Van Zandt, production manager for super-guitarist Eric Johnson. Van Zandt's own playing skills are quite evident. Van Zandt is an accomplished musician who regularly performs at such well-known Austin venues as the 3/11 Club, Headliners East, and Antone's. Jeff showed me all of his guitars, most-of-which, surprisingly, he let me hold. One in particular - a Brown 60's vintage Fender Statocaster, of which he is quite proud - he played for me, off and on, for about five minutes. The sound was fabulous. I asked him to show me certain nuances with which I've been struggling as a guitarist, and he gladly shared his knowledge.

His home on several acres, which he's in the process of remodeling himself enjoys a gorgeous view. A strong, detail-oriented, well-mannered guy with his feet firmly planted on the ground, Jeff appears to know what he wants and is highly capable of getting it. He also is fortunate enough not to have to do the majority of hard work himself. Which is a good thing, considering that I can recall seeing him, some years ago, attempting to marshal some rather large guitar amps up a steep outdoor arena ramp in blistering, 100-degree heat.

LO. As a Production Manager, do you consider yourself to be an independent contractor?

JVZ. Yes, absolutely. I'm free to work for who ever I want, but I've been working almost exclusively with Eric Johnson for the past four to five years.

LO. Do you enjoy healthcare benefits or a retirement fund, like folks who have a "normal" job might have, and take for granted?

JVZ. Being self-employed, there is no healthcare plan associated with what I do, so I have to buy that on my own. As far as a retirement plan, I've got Money Market funds and IRAs.

LO. Who calls and schedules the initial tour meeting?

JVZ. Either I do, or the artist's manager does.

LO. What kinds of things get discussed?

JVZ. Everyone reviews the previous tour, how to avoid or fix things that might have gone wrong. Then, we lay out the next tour.

LO. Who prepares the backline equipment list? Are there standard elements, and is it based on the songs that will be played?

JVZ. The production company and the venues usually provide the PA equipment, sound, and lighting gear. I prefer 100-watt amps to 50-watt amps, for obvious reasons. The artist's personal rig is based on the set to be played. Eric Johnson generally writes his own set list. I coordinate the logistics of getting the equipment, scheduling transportation, arrival and setup times, and so on.

LO. What kind of spare things get brought along?

JVZ. We have back-up of everything.

LO. .two of everything, like on Noah's Ark?

JVZ. Right. Also, odd stuff: #2 pencils, hair dryers, duct tape --- LOTS of duct tape ---- and with one artist in particular, a very specific particular brand of extension chord..(laughter)..oh yes: and Q-Tips.

LO. Is there always enough help at venues to move in and out?

JVZ. Sometimes there are only a few stage-hands. It depends on the venue. I have one assistant that I bring with me on certain occasions.

LO. What happens to your personal life when you're gone for so long . . . pets, do you pay bills from the road?

JVZ. I'm lucky enough to have a guest-house renter who house-sits, and takes care of my dog, Trixie. (As if on-cue, Trixie the Dog appears, patiently waiting at the patio door, slowly wagging her tail as we talk: she seems accustomed to this, knowing that she has to wait for a piece of Jeff's time, just like everyone in his busy life.) I try to pay bills ahead of time but on long tours I have to have my mail FedEx'd to me on the road, so that my personal finances are taken care of on time. I also use Internet banking.

LO. Would you say this is the best job in the world? (Jeff smiles and pauses for a brief moment before answering.)

JVZ. Whenever you get a bad day, there's a good day to make it all worthwhile. One night at the Cooper Mountain Festival in Colorado, I jammed on stage with Buddy Guy and Eric Johnson. That was phenomenal. Another time, in West Palm Beach, Florida I was watching Eric on stage: he was so in tune with himself, I could tell by the way he looked at me, yet right through me, that he was totally in the zone. That night Eric played notes that didn't even exist. Those are the awesome times.

LO. How long do you go, sleeping on the bus? Is there a set hotel stop every couple of days? What's the longest time you've spent solely on a bus??

JVZ. I've been on a bus for up to an entire week at a time, getting off to set up, do the show, and get right back on the road. Then, it's microwaved "Amy's Frozen dinners." We're also using a new bus company now where the owner's wife does some of the driving. She's like the bus mom. For large tours there may be two buses: one for the band and one for the crew. I'll let you decide which one is the party bus. Keep in mind though, Eric is not called "Mr. Rogers" for nothing.

LO. Do you have to stop at laundromats?

JVZ. Yes, sometimes. Whenever we stay at a hotel we use their cleaning service. Sometimes the best venues take care of those things. They know a musician's life, so there are washers and dryers available. Sometimes the bus will also have washers and dryers.

LO. How does your job differ from that of, say, a Road Manager?

JVZ. Road Managers mainly handle finances, such as per diems or money from the venues. My job is to do all the advance work, which means contacting and setting up the venues for move-in and move-out, plus information and details regarding sound and lighting arrangements. I contact and coordinate with production companies for backline requirements, and secure PA systems if the venues don't have one, or the right kind, as well as special items such as pianos, as required.

(From his well-equipped home office, complete with computer, desk, files, fax machine, and telephone he produces the Itinerary for an entire tour. "Sometimes the band doesn't even look at the Itinerary," he says, "because it's much easier to ask me. I'm expected to know every detail, off the top of my head," he says, smiling.)

LO. How long have you been doing this kind of work?

JVZ. I've been in the business for nine years. I obtained this opportunity though a good friend of mine, Ian Moore, who lives in the Pacific Northwest now. I helped him move there.

LO. What cities, other than Austin, Texas are good for this kind of work?

JVZ. Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville, in particular.

LO. Do you have a worst time scenario story?

JVZ. During one tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd in Indianapolis, a huge storm came up rather quickly. During "Free Bird" - which was their last song - the winds blew and rain came storming down, driven sideways by the wind. There was heavy thunder and lighting. After the set, their equipment was off-stage, under a tarp that was acting as an awning. The whole thing blew over, and every piece of equipment got wet. The next day, all the amps had to be taken apart and hand-dried with blow dryers before they could be used. It was a lot of work, with not much time before the next performance.

LO. Do you have a best time scenario story?

JVZ. The second "Lilith Fair Festival Tour" was a summer gig with an absolutely fabulous, top- rated production company. After all the work was done, I'd sit back in an easy chair and watch artists like Sheryl Crow and Sara McLaughlin. That was the best. The whole tour was handled very professionally. Every thing went smoothly and fell in line as it should.

LO. Jeff if you could live anywhere in the US where would it be?

JVZ. Newport Beach, California.

For now Austin's got him. They're lucky. There should be more guys out there like this one.

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Lois O'Brien is a Minnesota-based, fledgling freelancer who discovered the guitar many years ago and has been touring with Eric Johnson - to date, solely as a fan - ever since.