Behind the scenes, rock and roll is hardly glamorous.
It’s seven hours before Reel Big Fish takes the stage, but the band’s gear already is set up. A stagehand screams and whispers inane, random thoughts and he makes fart noises into each of the six microphones. Then one by one, the band members test their instruments. Tom Ames, the sound engineer and tour manager, works the control panel that has more knobs and lights than an airplane.
Ensuring perfect sound is a tedious task and just one of the numerous duties for Ames, who is in constant motion. After sound check, he rushes out of the building to move the tour bus and unload cartons of water.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus pushed a giant boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down. He repeated this action for eternity. Ames has been moving two of the busiest touring bands in the business for 32 years, 12 with the Beat Farmers and 20 with Reel Big Fish.
“Basically, it’s like herding cats around,” Ames said.
The musicians who work with Ames sing praises.
“Tom is one of the best human beings that I have ever met and had the pleasure to work with,” said the Reel Big Fish trumpet player, Johnny Christmas. “He is a great leader of people. He’s part psychologist, part CFO, part body guard, part taskmaster and part general. You always know that he has (the band’s) best interests in mind without question. He is a selfless individual with tireless commitment to excellence. He is also one of the finest front-of-house engineers there is.”
“He’s Mr. Everyman, a can-do guy and really sociable and sweet,” said Joey Harris, who played with the Beat Farmers from 1985-95. “He was like head wrangler. Besides collecting the money and doing the sound, he made sure everybody got to where they needed to be on time. We were four guys with different personalities and different interests and we all have to be in the same place in the evening and in the morning when it’s time to leave. The poor guy would be driving around Des Moines looking for the equipment van one of us had stolen so we could sneak off to a party or something.”
Harris also emphasized Ames “doesn’t take any shit.”
When Ames went to collect the money after one Beat Farmers show, he had a gun pointed to his head. Ames wrestled the gunman down and got the money.
He also held Country Dick Montana in his arms after he collapsed onstage Nov. 8, 1995, in Vancouver, B.C.
“I went to the hospital with Dick,” Ames said. “They worked on him at least a half-hour, 45 minutes, and I was still stunned when they came out trying to revive him after all that time. They came out and told me he was gone. I was in shock. … After Dick died I said I am done with the road.”
Ames worked for a while at a venue, but the job was not financially sustainable. He worked for a band (he won’t reveal who) on its first tour. He quit because he couldn’t handle the musicians’ constant whining. A bus driver told him Reel Big Fish needed a tour manager.
“Two days after I quit that gig, this gig came up and I got it,” Ames said. “It was 1999. I said, ‘I will come aboard if you guys work,’ and sure as hell, we’ve been working pretty steady for the time I’ve been around.”
The self-described “Poor and Famous” Beat Farmers also were infamous for heavy drinking and hard partying. Ames liked Reel Big Fish because of the ska band’s crazy attitude and high-energy shows.
“I need to have fun,” he said. “I want to have fun at what I’m doing. That’s what attracted them to me. It’s a different deal (than it was with the Beat Farmers). That was a hard living, ready to kick some ass every time. But these guys love their craft beer, for sure.”
“Tom has an endless supply of terrible jokes and ‘Tomisims,’ which I wish I could share with you but that may get one of us arrested,” Christmas said.
Ames probably has been to every town in the country.
“Everywhere we went,” Harris said, “whether we were in Florida, if we were in Maine, if we were in Washington state, we’d be driving down through a town somewhere. He’d say, ‘Down this avenue here, that’s where I lived in 1980 such and such.’ He’s lived all over the United States.”
In his time with Reel Big Fish, Ames has seen numerous lineup changes.
“Tom has counseled me many times over the 12 years I have been in the band,” Christmas said. “When I first got in the band, I embraced the party atmosphere. Tom had to pick me up at a campus police station of a college in Worcester, Massachusetts, after a show. I was drunk, broke and as sick as a dog. The next day, I received some advice about what being professional was and how it had nothing to do with the way I was behaving. Tom is great at being frank and compassionate.”
After a recent Reel Big Fish show in Reno, Ames finally takes a break. He offers a reporter a beer and has one for himself. The cans are green, Country Dick’s favorite. He laughs, shares a story, and halfway through his beer, he sets it down and begins to unplug and tie up cords. It’s 1 a.m. The bus leaves at 4.