Proving Grounds: Sojii on the Perils and Triumphs of DIY Touring


Grand Rapids self described “trench-funk” veterans Sojii are about to embark on a 5-week coast-to-coast DIY tour of the United States. Talking to the band, the tour feels like a culmination of sorts; or at least the next step towards something bigger. I talked to the band about what it takes for local musicians to execute a large-scale DIY tour.

Sojii has embarked on ambitious tours before, often side-by-side with fellow Grand Rapids punk band Ape Not Kill Ape, who are also joining them on this 5-week trek. Sojii have been to the east and west coasts, and most everywhere in between, but this is the biggest tour they’ve ever done by far. Of their next trip, guitarist-vocalist Valerie Salerno says, “we’re going to be playing almost every night…We’ve never played that much.” The band plans to head down along the East Coast into the Southwest, where the band will be stopping by SXSW. After that, the band will head for the West Coast, and then back through the Midwest before heading home.

It’s not easy to prep for a large-scale operation like this, but the band members have learned from previous smaller excursions the proper steps to take. “It’s like half money, and half mental,” drummer Donny Olin tells me. “The act of doing it is not challenging, it’s making sure that you are ready to go, because if you’re not ready to go, you’re not going to have a good time, or you’re going to run out of money and fuck yourself over somehow,” he adds. Money is a huge concern, and being ready can mean preparing months in advance. “We’re going for 5 weeks, which is an entire bill period basically, so you have to get all that shit squared away, water bill, rent, car insurance,” Olin continues. For bands thinking of making similar treks themselves, he suggests the $10 rule. “You can get by in most parts of the United States on 10 bucks a day, and it’s a really good yardstick for you to use to be like oh my god, maybe I should slow down before I’m begging for change in Tulsa,” he adds.

The band also have to prepare themselves mentally. For the inevitable downtime, Olin plans on doing a lot of reading. For musicians like Sojii and ANKA, listening to music is obviously a given. You also have to be mindful of the stress incurred by being stuck in a van with the same people for weeks on end. “I feel like the part that sometimes breaks people is the fact that Allen and Brett (drummer and guitarist of ANKA, respectively) are on hour 36 of Bob Dylan and the Band…We all obviously love Bob Dylan and the Band, but like, there’s something about a really high pitched harmonica at 3:30 in the morning,” Olin quips. ‘If you’re in a car with somebody for a long time you’re gonna get pissed off at least once,” Salerno explains. Sojii understand that the occasional spat is inevitable, and that they try not to take anything to heart. “We’re all going through the same thing,” Olin says.

Artwork by Katrina Demarcus

It’s not all personal preparedness, however. The booking and organization of the tour are just as important. Salerno booked nearly all of the dates on this tour. “I used to book shit tours because I wasn’t that organized…. I’ve gotten so much better,” she explains. The key thing for organizing such a large-scale DIY tour is writing everything down. It looks like this, she says: “for every single date, keeping track of the steps you’ve taken… we have 36 dates so its like 36 different situations that I have to keep up on the steps of.” The process takes time. “I started booking this one 4 months before the tour… and we’re still finishing up, we have 9 more dates to go. Today we got another one,” she continues. Salerno explains that the booking process for DIY shows isn’t so straightforward either. “It’s not all start looking and then get a date same day, or even in a couple days. A lot of its like ‘Who knows, I don’t know, talk to this guy,” she says. Often the process comes down to “relentlessly hounding people,” she adds with a laugh. Two things have helped ease this process, however. “Now that we have an album everything’s so much easier because people are like oh they’re serious,” Salerno explains. Another crucial factor has been having a press kit and a professional bio. “Almost 90% of the time I’ll get an answer back, and it used to be like, 30%,”  This process has paid off, too. “This tour we’re getting really cool dates,” she tells me. The date the band is most excited about is a SXSW spillover show in San Antonio. “We’re the opener for the main band, like we play right before them,” she exclaims to her bandmates’ astonishment.

Salerno points out that while it’s important to book solid shows, it’s also crucial to prepare for being on the road. “I have a whole itinerary… part of the organization is like, leaving times, when do we have to leave by this date… what’s the time zone change for that,” she explains. The band learned the importance of keeping track of time zones the hard way. Salerno recalls one instance in particular. She explains,”we didn’t factor in the time change from Denver to Davenport, Iowa so we were like fucking two hours late and we didn’t have bass strings.” Their solution was to call in a favor from the people hosting the show. “We had to call  them and be like, can you guys go to Guitar Center?” Salerno says.

Guitarist Danny Sein agrees on the importance of preparedness, but adds “I think it’s also okay when you’re not because like, once you start going … you just develop this kind of like family pack mentality.” Salerno concurs, adding, “you want to help them out, when one of us is broke the other one will step in and not let you starve. Financially and emotionally we support each other a lot.” While Salerno is the only original member of Sojii, she expresses that this lineup of the band has proved itself time and time again, both as a touring act and a recording act, but also as a group of people who can rely on one another. “I’ve been on tours before with people and the tour is how I find out that I shouldn’t be in a band with them,” She tells me. “I think our two week tour was make us or break us, because that was a show every day… I think two weeks is breaking point, and I think now that we’re beyond that, we’re so close,” Salerno says.

While the camaraderie shared among the members of Sojii is palpable, so is the relationship the band shares with ANKA. “They’re ride or die just like us,” Salerno tells me, adding, “we’re the little spoon to their big spoon.” I ask if that’s something they kept in mind as they’ve booked other bands across their tour. “Spooning?” She quips. The band mention Chicago punk band Drool. “They’re definitely our little spoon,” Salerno adds.

Speaking to the band, the force that compels them is apparent. Of the thing that motivates him, Olin says, “It’s like a job… I don’t want to say a job because it’s nothing like a job, but it is like… it’s the same kind of dedication and it’s the same kind of ‘I need to do this’.” Describing her anticipation Salerno says, “that’s what’s so amazing about tour, that you’re with a bunch of people, you were all born for this… so like a tour is just fucking heaven for me, even if I don’t have like a lot of money. It’s just so exciting to wake up in a new place every day and get to meet new people and do what you love, and share your shit, to people who are interested… or not.”

Check out Sojii’s tour dates below:

Sojii Tour Dates.jpg

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