This synth is not a bomb
Hopes&Fears talks with touring electronic musicians about flying with gear, where they’ve had the biggest issues, and what you need to do to catch your flight.
It would take a truly bizarre set of circumstances for most members of the “alternative” community to clear an airport terminal (first, liking a band as shitty as This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, and second, flying with a bicycle that has their sticker on it). But being pulled aside, delayed, and/or cavity searched by airport security is an almost guaranteed experience for electronic musicians flying with gear in their carry-on.
Empty your pockets. Take off your shoes. Dispose of the liquids you inevitably forgot you had. Take your laptop out of your bag for some weird reason nobody understands. Walk through this giant machine from the future that will pump your body full of radiation and probably take five years off of your life. And now, please, come with me. This Mackie mixer looks suspicious.
Touring electronic musicians have it rough. So Hopes&Fears asked a handful of knob twisters about flying with gear, where they’ve had the biggest issues, and what you need to do to catch your flight.
Experimental techno musician under the guise of Jahiliyya Fields
The first time I took my modular synthesizer on a flight, I knew from the jump off at JFK it was a bad idea to be late. Flying on LOT airlines to Poland for the OFF fest, I was approached in the line by security who thought it was a pistol case. I, being someone who is pretty hard on instruments, decided to get the nice black travel case—approximately the size of a trumpet case—but with the very military style protective corners; I thought for once I would have a good case from the start. A quick look at the interior calmed the pistol expert. After being processed through the belt and shoe department of the TSA, I ran for my flight and made it on time.
In Europe, reactions to this caricature of an exploding box (as it seems to appear to people who have never seen a modern travelling musician) range from boredom (Berlin airport), to the usual "please sir, come off the line to the back room for the bomb swab." I quickly learned that to swab the panels and to keep it looking more commercial, I should travel with the synth unpatched. Cords make people nervous. The back rooms were not so stern usually though, with people getting a bit of musical info in exchange for some banter that would prove I am only nominally nefarious in a musical setting.
The worst was probably the reaction of the other passengers on a flight from Warsaw; running into a full plane, sweaty from running through the airport, brown skinned and all clad in black with this odd box. The passengers did not feel my look. I tried a laugh to assuage the vibe—even worse. Tension melted when I just then seemed like an American.
Sometimes I think of wearing an "Airport friendly" collared shirt, or maybe getting a pink case, but I doubt [I’ll do it].
New York-based musician, event producer and visual artist
I've travelled all over carrying a big case of electronics with surprisingly little incident. They usually give the case a funny look and do the swab thing. But once when I left Berlin, the security guys were looking at my gear and said, "techno, boom boom?" I was like “yeah,” and they said, "Berghain?" And I was like, “Yes, actually!” Because I had just played there for the first time. And they all wooped and gave me a pat on the back. I felt really cool. I later realized I'd had shrooms in my backpack for over a year.
Rhythmic noise maker under the aliases Sewn Leather/Skull Katalog
Usually airport security asks if I’m a DJ, and I just say yes. Sometimes they look scared of it. The "punk box" always gave me trouble.
It’s a modified old Radio Shack mixer that I have an RCA feedback loop going through, and you stick a key into where the crossfader used to be to change the pitch of the tone. One time I had to plug headphones into it to prove it made sound. I got stuck in France for an extra day because getting through security took so long and I was having trouble explaining the "punk box." Dealing with security is the same as dealing with any authority figure pretty much. Just say as little as possible, smile, nod, try to keep things moving. If they ask you if you sound like Skrillex, just say yes.
Sewn Leather's "Punk Box"
Avant-garde composer based in New York, best known for his four-volume album The Disintegration Loops (2002–2003)
The gear I travel with looks so weird when packed into my small rolling carry-on bag, I've learned to just take it all out so they can look at it to save time for me and everyone else. I have two small Uher Report Monitor reel-to-reel decks, wires, batteries, containers of tape loops and reels, a laptop, etc. Sometimes the older security personnel recognize the tape decks, “old school!” A young lady recently asked me about my film reels. Tegel airport is notorious for losing your luggage, and then it's like the Soviet Union downstairs where you have to wait in long lines and fill out endless paperwork. Don't ever check gear going to Berlin if you can help it! I had a problem in Toronto a while back with an agent that was very concerned about my tiny scissors I use for splicing tape. She insisted on keeping them. Another time, a lady was very concerned about my scotch tape dispenser with that nasty cutting edge. I let her have it. Sheesh.
Producer, cofounder of White Material
It's got to look bizarre that I'm carrying an entire bag full of metal boxes and fucking cables, so it is sensible for them to take a closer look. Plus now that my beard is growing thicker I look more depraved so… Typically, security politely tells me, “You are coming this way.” I calmly follow them to a little room and then they swab the zippers of my backpack to see if any traces of explosives are on there. Then, once they're satisfied, I tell them guttentag, gracias, have a nice evening and then I get on my way to the gate. I played a live set in Manchester on my first EU tour in 2012. The party was the most debaucherous gig I've played at and was held in a flooding basement under an old warehouse. Every time anyone touched the turntables or any of the electronics that night they got shocked. During my set someone spilled an entire glass of some herbal cocktail into my mixer. I was about to stop mid-set and pack shit up, but I realized that it wasn't shorting out or anything. I was like, "Fuck it, fuck this mixer. This thing is dead; this is what you love to do, and these people paid good money to be here." So I kept playing and somehow it didn't die. I still travel with the same mixer, and two years later, it's still leaking that same drink onto the gloved hands of airport security.
Producer, founder of “Bu-mako recordings” and host of “The Bumako Experience” radio show
I have locks, so I always get scrutinized whether I have record bags or not. As a result, I try to minimize what type of gear I travel with. It depends what airport you are at. Some don’t care, others ask you to explain what’s in the bag and are astonished that someone has a bag of vinyl records. It really just depends on the airport and the personnel working that day. Just do what they ask you to do as calmly as you can, even if it’s pissing you off. Most are just trying to do their job. If they cross the line, then handle it after you are through security. Don’t miss your flight! Also, I was shocked at the level of security you go through traveling to Israel, no joke! They take everything out and take it apart. For instance, they took all my records out of the bag and inspected them one by one. And then they check you again after security, but before you get on the plane.
DIY noise-techno producer from Nashville
It really depends on the airport and the agents you end up with. For a while I wasn’t unpacking my bags at all; I’d just send them through the machine and about half the time they’d just let me through, and the other half I’d have to take everything out, have it re-scanned and sometimes swabbed for explosives. Now, I just take everything out and usually they don’t have any questions. Generally, I think they know that it’s music gear. They get enough people coming through with that stuff, but they still have to check it out. One time they made me open my suitcase, and all I had in it was two cassette decks and the guy said, “So… you’re a DJ?” I was like, “No, and I’m not sure why these two shitty cassette decks would give you that impression.” Pretty much if you have anything that’s not a guitar they assume you’re a DJ. When I have to check a bag with gear in it, I have a Pelican case that I use and a TSA lock for it. A bunch of times now when it comes down the belt the case is wide open and the lock is the only thing stopping my stuff from spilling out everywhere, completely negating the purpose of buying the Pelican case in the first place.
Electronic producer, half of Appetite, co-founder of No Tech
They always take my gear out and inspect it, which bothers me because most of the time we are not allowed to touch it or aid in the inspection and the security personnel are often times not careful at all.I'm generally most concerned about my Machinedrum since it's my most expensive piece of gear, and Elektron machines are notoriously very difficult to impossible to get fixed. It's the worst when they make the announcement in the middle of boarding that the overhead is full and they will now check the remaining carry-ons "for free," as if they are doing you a favor. I've had to cause a bit of scene to get my gear on the actual plane and not be thrown around by baggage handlers. Once you make a scene or protest they get fearful of you delaying the flight and somehow, magically, they will find an overhead space for you.
Experimental electronic musician from New York City
I'm always asked to step aside to have my bags searched, there’s just no getting around it. I average about four trays of nondescript electronic items at the X-ray machine, so by the time they've all gone through, someone’s raised a red flag. I used to perform with an Alesis MMT8 sequencer and a Yamaha TQ 5 sound module, devices that look like props from Mission Impossible. Airport security has spent much time contemplating their meaning, trying to understand why it is that I would need them on board with me. The simple, yet hidden reason is that your carry-on is rarely checked for weight. So if you’re bringing the kitchen sink along with you on tour, it’s not a bad idea to bring the mixer and the rest of your audio hardware in your hand luggage.Last year when I flew out of San Diego, airport security did a swab test on my suitcase, which tested positive for traces of explosives and narcotics. I was detained for about an hour and had to explain that I had been setting off fireworks on stage, and had just gotten back from a three-day wedding on the outskirts of Tijuana. I made them laugh, and that resolved things. Most of the people working those jobs are bored out of their minds, so if you can't entertain them with stories, or you aren't someone they'd enjoy patting down, they can get malicious. They want something to do. I suggest you just skip the X-ray and go right for the pat down. No matter what I do that’s where it always ends up. You may as well enjoy it.