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On Being a Hired Gun for the Killers, Lorde, and Childish Gambino

From small bars in Orange County to the main stage at Coachella, Ray Suen explains what it’s like to tour with the biggest bands without being in the band

Instagram/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hello, friends, and welcome to “The Annotated Road Taken,” Episode 5. As always, what follows is contextual and supporting audiovisual materials to go with our conversation with the great Ray Suen, who has headlined Madison Square Garden, Coachella (twice) and countless stadiums and festivals around the world.

Why have you probably never heard his name before? Because Ray is a so-called “hired gun”; he wields his musical skills for great bands who need him, while his own name doesn’t grace the marquee. His résumé is filled with jobs like Childish Gambino, Lorde, the Killers, the Flaming Lips, Passion Pit and, yes, even the house band on Last Call With Carson Daly, among others. It’s very likely you’ve seen him play over the last 12 years without even realizing it.

This conversation was fascinating for Baio and me. As founding members of Vampire Weekend, our experience of touring—both the setbacks and the growth—have been almost fully vested into a singular entity. Ray’s journey, on the other hand, has been more transient, jumping from tour to tour and band to band, sometimes searching for stability and sometimes reveling in the diversity of his experiences. The life and career of an auxiliary musician can take many forms, perhaps featured and out front or perhaps buried away from view underneath the stage.

We appreciated Ray taking the time to talk to us, shedding a light on this often overlooked aspect of touring, and sharing his story of going from acoustic Weezer covers in Clairemont Mesa, California, to headlining Coachella.

Let’s get into it!

0:40 “Friday, I played with Childish Gambino …”

We sat down with Ray in between the two weekends of Coachella 2019, which he headlined with Childish Gambino. During this clip from the first weekend, amid some delightful audience interplay from Donald Glover, we see the massive visage of Ray on the big screen. Looking good! Performing during any slot at a big, outdoor festival is a wild experience. The audience magically transforms from your normal club audience of, say, a few hundred into a many-thousand-strong sea of humanity. Headlining, which generally happens after dark when stage lights (and audience inebriation levels) really come into play, is probably the most potent version of this mass experience.

As Ray puts it, headlining Coachella 2019 was a “closing of a big loop” for the band, whose first slot at that festival came in 2012 (Ray is the left-most guitarist in this clip). Both performances took place on the same mainstage, and the comparison of the two shows the truly incredible growth, both artistically and in crowd recognition, of Childish Gambino.

2:48 “He couldn’t make the gig, so I went and filled in …”

Ray’s tenure with Childish Gambino started on a fill-in date in Vancouver for a violinist who may or may not have had Canadian visa issues. I’m not sure if Ray (or anyone) would have predicted what this gig would lead to on either side, but so goes the life of a hired gun.

3:30 “Donald used to open the show with a half-hour stand up set …”

As Donald Glover moved away from his sitcom notoriety toward a more all-around artistic presence, he used Childish Gambino concerts as the front line in the fight against lazy public estimation. As Ray said, many people showed up early on expecting Donald to “bring the funny.” One way of bridging both sides of that divide was to begin with some element of comedy before embarking on the musical part of the evening—sometimes stand-up, sometimes a prerecorded sketch, both finding humor in what the perception of what Donald and Childish Gambino could or should be.

5:58 “I turned around and looked back and my amp was on fire …”

At Coachella 2009, the ever-altruistic Paul McCartney apparently gifted the Killers a bunch of pyro (stage fireworks) that he hadn’t used during his opening-night headlining set. While Ray was incredibly jacked up for his first Coachella performance—as a headliner no less—he was not jacked up enough to set his amp on fire. That was caused by some of the extra pyro, as seen here in the waterfall of sparks, though it probably was still an equally scary and exhilarating feeling to triumphantly finish a performance only to find your equipment aflame.

7:03 “I saw her tearing up, just her and Donald playing together …”

Here, Ray is contrasting his own veteran calmness with one of his fellow bandmate’s more visceral reactions to the overwhelming experience of headlining a festival. After Donald asks for it, keyboardist Lynette Williams plays “something pretty for the audience.” They play an incredible duet that makes the arid fields of Coachella feel as intimate as a campfire. We can’t quite see any tearing up, but Lynette is indeed playing beautifully and gets some good screen time around 4:10.

9:24 “I sent you guys a picture this morning …”

Indeed he did, and here it is in all of its 2008 digital camera glory!

Courtesy Ray Suen

This was backstage after Vampire Weekend and the Killers played a French television show called Taratata, which was notable for its exuberant light show and very clap-happy audience. This show was one of VW’s earlier forays into Continental television, and we thusly gave it our all with a cover (in French!) of Plastic Bertrand’s song “Ça plane pour moi.” The more seasoned Killers did an odd bilingual interview and crushed two songs during their promotional run leading up to their album Day & Age. The Killers were extremely friendly and sweet to us that day (they didn’t have to be), and that run-in was heartening and inspiring to us at the time.

11:42 “I was playing in a cover band in an Irish bar …”

Before Ray got his first touring gig, he was playing acoustic Weezer covers at the Blarney Stone in Clairemont Mesa, California, with the band Fever Crotch. Apparently the pub retains its “laid back, neighborhood feel” and still has acoustic nights every weekend.

14:05 “The first show I ever played with Louis XIV was at Red Rocks …”

Ray’s touring truly journey begins as violinist for the band Louis XIV as they opened for the Killers across North America. I couldn’t find any footage from this specific show, but here’s Ray learning his craft onstage and at radio stations. The reason Baio and I react so strongly to this anecdote is how historic and daunting the venue Red Rocks is and how much whiplash that must have induced as Ray’s first post–Blarney Stone gig.

25:02 “I did the whole Day & Age cycle with them …”

After a luminous audition and aftermath, Ray’s performed with the Killers during their great 2008-2010 run of shows during which they went everywhere from Bogotá to Cape Town to Columbia, Maryland. Here’s a highlight from Lollapalooza in Chicago, where you can see a bit of backlit Ray on stage left, and here he is learning how to walk to stage at a Scottish festival.

26:23 “The most nervous I’ve ever been was before Saturday Night Live …”

This is becoming a common refrain on The Road Taken. For many, SNL is the most singularly stressful and prestigious performance possible, no matter if you are a band member, hired gun, or anyone else involved. Looks like Ray and the Killers crushed so hard that they were asked for some in-house/off camera encores.

29:57 “In the NY Times review of that Barclays they called me out for wearing 5 Nets jerseys …”

When Vampire Weekend played the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, in 2013, I wanted to pay homage to my beloved and oft-beleaguered Nets. The best idea I could come up with was to walk on stage with five jerseys on simultaneously and cycle through them over the course of the show, which is, admittedly, a ridiculous thing to do. But it did get me a special mention in the paper of record and, you know, go Nets, #WeGoHard, etc. Also, big shouts to Baio’s long hair and beard combo from this era. It looks good!

31:30 “I came up to the front of the stage, and honestly that was terrifying …”

Here I am referencing my extreme nerves when Vampire Weekend played the song “Taxi Cab” during our Contra-era shows. On that song I played sampled sounds off of a drum pad that was placed closer to the audience and in front of the drum kit. I wasn’t used to standing up or having that level of perceived visibility, and it tweaked me out at the time, as evidenced here by my little arm shimmy and head shake before we begin an early performance.

37:04 “The drum riser at Richard’s on Richards was insanely high …”

Ray first saw Vampire Weekend perform at the now-defunct Richard’s on Richards in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ray remembers us “sounding terrible” that evening, and I remember the onstage drum rise being “insanely high.” Well, my memory isn’t accurate (the riser seems like it was a fairly normal height), and I bet Ray’s being unnecessarily harsh on young VW. We were probably at least fine if not approaching good.

37:36 “I remember being like, ‘Wow, they’re playing Sheratons ...”

A Sheraton is a type of electric guitar made by Epiphone that has been the main guitar in Vampire Weekend’s live show from the very beginning. 2008 Ray was being judgmental about that because they are not particularly high-end guitars, but to our ears they’ve always sounded great. Fun fact: I picked out the original VW Sheraton at a Guitar Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, as a kind of beater guitar to take to college. A few years later, we used it for some early live shows, and it’s still in the onstage guitar rotation to this day.

38:29 “I’ve been lucky enough to do that for Lorde this last record …”

Another of Ray’s more interesting gigs was being the musical director for Lorde on her touring behind the album Melodrama. As Ray explains, being an MD involves arranging, conceptualizing, and carrying out all the musical elements of a concert. This means drastically different things for a pop show than it does for, say, an opera performance. In any case, the MD role holds a lot of responsibility and creative flexibility to make the show as good as it can be. For Lorde and Ray (and choreographers and stage production, etc.), here is the first performance at Coachella 2017 of where they ended up.

43:48 “The Bronx guys called and said, ‘Hey, we need a violin player’ ...”

Another group that Ray has played and toured with is Mariachi El Bronx. There’s Ray on the left of this acoustic performance from the punk/mariachi hybrid.

44:50 “It does take me back to the Joe Walsh quote …”

The narrative of Ray’s musical journey brought to Baio’s mind this legendary passage from the documentary History of the Eagles.