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How we escaped Bataclan

“It was a gruesome task”: Eagles Of Death Metal tour manager Steev A Toth recounts the Paris nightmare – and its repercussions for touring. Interview by Phil Ward

Steev A Toth has been around. An experienced and level-headed tour manager, he’s seen tragedy at Danish festival Roskilde first-hand and toured South America with armed guards. But nothing could have prepared him for the horrific events of Friday 13 November at The Bataclan, a small club in central Paris, when terrorists stormed an otherwise modest gig by his close-knit colleagues, rock icons the Eagles Of Death Metal, and began executing innocent fans.

The appalling events unfolded in TV pictures beamed around the world, followed by rare interviews by band and crew as they tried to come to terms with what happened.

The precise details are inevitably blurred, but Steev A Toth was in greater proximity, and for a longer time, than anyone else connected with the band – including several weeks since of trying to piece together the band’s belongings, the musical equipment involved and the very spirit of the act. It has all left him with a new perspective on the whole business of being on tour, and with much to say on how this industry might respond…

The Attack

As a consequence of the layout of the venue, most of the band and stage crew, along with front of house engineer Shawn London, escaped relatively quickly. But, with no exits on their side of the building, Toth and those band members standing stage left – guitarist David Catching and bassist Matt McJunkins – were trapped throughout the entire three-hour ordeal until rescue came. Speaking for the first time since then, after weeks of difficult and at times stomach-churning recovery, here he relates his experience of the events and their far-reaching aftermath.

How did you get through it?
We barricaded ourselves in a small technical area off to the left of the theatre. The bass player (Matt) managed to get one floor up to the actual production office and guitarist (David) found a small bathroom; I was in a ground-floor equipment room. There isn’t much you can do in a state of panic. There were 1,500 people panicking, as well. I must say I’m quite together in situations – it’s not my first incident at a show. Nothing to this degree, but you’ve got to keep a level head. I’m not saying it’s easy, but there were points when I knew I had to keep lucid and deal with what’s happening. It’s completely unbelievable, what happened… but it did.

How did you know it was safe to come out?
Special Forces or French Police came in and rescued us from the room – which was a little intimidating, because there was the question of whether it was the terrorists or the police. I don’t speak French very well, but I had to ask who was trying to get in… at some point we had to decide, and we decided it was the police. It was ‘hands up’, and they march you out telling you to look up all the time. Naturally, you look down – and at that point you see… well, you know.

You walked out through the bodies, and body parts…?
Yep; those who’d died were still lying on the ground and then of course I saw our merch guy Nick [Alexander] lying there. I was the one who identified him; that’s why his name probably came out first. He looked very peaceful… no scars or damage, unlike what I was stepping over.

My job was to try and collect all my guys together, which we filtered through one-by-one until we managed to ascertain that everyone except Nick was alive. Nobody knew about us till we came out, of course. Those who got out first had made it to a police station sometime after it started, worrying about where we were. I borrowed a phone and got through to the FBI in the States, and the ‘command centre’ for us in LA. They told me most of the band were in a police station near the Bastille; my job was to try and get us there, but it was quite strange because the city was in lockdown and there was a siege mentality. I eventually managed to persuade the police to take us there, as if through a war zone, but they did and we were reunited with the rest of the group.

We then started the interview process, and met up with the psychology teams. It was difficult, with the language barrier, but something you had to do. It’s very important to accept the fact that you’ve just seen something really horrible. As hard-core as you think you are, you’re not that tough…

The Aftermath

By coincidence, the U2 entourage was in the city loading into the Palais de Bercy for two shows. They offered help and advice, and forged a strong bond as Toth and his band were kept under high security in a city hotel. Negotiations began with the FBI to repatriate the band, while the theatre was locked down and combed for forensic evidence – trapping all band and crew possessions inside. Only weeks later was Toth able to begin the harrowing process of recovering what was left…

Did you go back to the theatre?
No, it was decided that wasn’t right for me. I sent a French team in, somebody over from the UK, the French promoter (Nous Productions) and the head of the merchandising company. They swept through the building to clear the backline from the stage and all the personal effects from the production office and dressing rooms. It was all put in a van and driven back to England, where I sifted through it at [North London equipment supplier and rehearsal studios] John Henry’s. I can’t stress enough the kindness and helpfulness of John Henry’s & Matt Snowball Music, they’ve been absolutely amazing – giving us facilities, letting us use their warehouses, providing crew to help… and it was a very gruesome task, I can assure you.

Why was that?
Everything else was shot up and covered in body parts, basically. One of the suicide bombers blew himself up on stage. That included most of the back line and my microphones – all the mics were supplied by me – but I have a few left. They can possibly be cleaned up, and the guitars have been cleaned up… but generally it was a mess.

So you saw it before it was incinerated?
Yes, I had to sort through it to decide what could be salvaged and what would have to be incinerated. Once the van was back, John Henry’s provided me with a crew – John Henry himself was there, and his son Jamie – and we opened the van to ‘lift the lid’ on things. It was a quick decision: incinerate or keep. I kept most of the band’s stuff, but we needed to incinerate all the [guitar effects] pedal boards and most of the mics. You can imagine the stage: it was a mess, and I saw it when I came out around 12:30am that night, after three hours of carnage. I’m pretty sure that what I saw was… we weren’t going to be using much of this stuff again.

Everything was house except backline. I always choose to use my microphones, but we didn’t take cabling. Drums, amps and speaker cabinets were on loan, and we flew 16 pieces from the US of guitars, pedal boards and work boxes – what’s left is still in storage at John Henry’s, many thanks to them.

One report suggested the mixing desk took some bullets…
People’s recollections differ greatly. One thing you have to remember is most the band and crew got out reasonably quickly, When you start to analyse people’s statements, the fear they had, they tend to vary – of course they exaggerate: three guys walked into the Bataclan and started killing people! That’s a pretty tense situation to be in, and nobody’s memory is ever going to be 100% efficient – including mine. It’s very difficult to quantify a lot of it. But I do have photographic evidence of everything, and I can assure you it’s not quite how it was originally remembered.

The long-term impact

But the consequences of this unprecedented attack go far beyond the scrapping of some audio equipment. There are emotional scars for the band and crew to deal with, and the key question of how the industry as a whole should respond: not simply to one band, but to a new threat to one of he most vulnerable and concentrated sections of society.

Do you get the impression that the entertainment industry is now a specific target? And if so, can tour management do much about it?
You have to accept the fact that if you’re working in the entertainment industry, when you’re touring, you’ll always be a target for something, whatever that may be – because all shows are high profile, inasmuch as there’s a high number of people from mixed nationalities. There’s a high concentration of people out to enjoy themselves with their guard down; no one ever believes anything‘s going to happen.

But today it’s big business and high profile: if you’re trying to make a statement on behalf of Daesh or whoever, you will pick events like these – Germany vs France in a huge stadium? That’s pretty big, a lot of people.

Anything that happens will get on the news. That’s the whole point. I don’t think it’s a case of pinpointing particular people, whether they’re French, Cuban, German whatever… for me that’s not it. It’s just a high concentration of people. When we got out of the Bataclan, we heard that there had been four simultaneous attacks – that really was to push all the buttons and stretch the police to the limit.

EoDM just happened to be in town that night; it could have been The Deftones the next night. They came to our show, and left half an hour before this all happened because they had an early load-in for The Bataclan. They emailed me and said ‘We enjoyed what we saw but are back at hotel with a 7am call to load in same venue for three nights’. It could have been them. I don’t think anyone can say the EoDM were specifically a target, even if they are American.

The return of Eagles of Death Metal

And what next for the band? Such a devastating experience has changed things forever, but at the same time a resolute defiance remains. Some reports suggest that the band is deliberately keen on being the first back on stage at the Bataclan, but that’s a long way off. Before that there are rescheduled dates starting on February 13th in Sweden, and a new Paris date at The Olympia: with a bigger capacity here, Toth confirms that the band is offering the first 1,500 tickets to those who were at the Bataclan and will be selling a further one thousand to fill the venue. They leave for South America at the beginning of March, so the remaining European dates have been slotted into August.

Do you anticipate any ‘special attention’ when you get back on the road?
There’ll obviously be a lot more interest, because we’re ‘that’ band I suppose. I know the band and the management are not trying to court any of that kind of publicity or exploitation. It will be a by-product of what’s happened, but one you can’t dismiss. You can’t fight it, so you may as well embrace it. Yes it’s us, and we are coming… what do you do? You can’t say ‘don’t come and see us if you feel sorry for us’…

Some might be apprehensive…
I would suggest they would be, yes, and I can quite categorically state that, within our very small organisation of band and crew, I suspect one or two of our guys are apprehensive too. And I will hold my hand up and say that I am very apprehensive.

Won’t any venue or festival look at you and think, hmm..?
That’s the negative side I have to deal with. I have to say yes, it is us, we are coming, we’re not going to let this beat us… but I also have to look at the other side of the coin: some organisers might be unsure. It’s not about us; it’s about a set of attacks in Paris and, as I said originally, it could have been any band. Were we the target? No. We were just in Paris at the time. Perhaps if U2 had opened that night, they’d have targeted the Stade de France and The Bercy… It’s very difficult to say.

I do personally feel there’s going to be a lot of apprehension, nonetheless. Let’s face it. You don’t do gigs with the intention of protecting yourselves against three gunmen. That’s never crossed my mind. Security are there for crowd control, not to stop armed insurgents! If you want bodyguards I can get them, I know some of those guys – if you want to pay ‘serious money’ that is. We can’t afford that. And it still won’t stop them, unless our guys are armed too.

You certainly wouldn’t want to make Europe more like South America because of what happened in Paris; that would change the whole nature of the business…
I would not want to send in Navy SEAL over-site teams to every hotel and venue a week before every gig! Extraction routes, ABC routes, decoys… That is what you do in some countries – U2 and everyone that high profile. But to do that for the Olympia in Paris… phew, that’s a bit heavy. There will obviously be discussions with all promoters in advance, they know who we are… and I will initiate them. I’m not a security expert but I have worked with some quite heavy teams before. I know what I’m looking for, and I will be consulting people I know and I will take advice. But I don’t want to be turning up with large close protection teams, blacked-out cars and buses and sweeping in through underground car parks. We’re playing clubs!

But it is now on the agenda, surely…
Well, we had years of trying to improve crowd control after those deaths at Roskilde, because it made it a high priority. (Nine fans were killed in the mosh pit during Pearl Jam’s performance on the main stage. Appropriate safety measures were introduced subsequently – Ed.) Unfortunately, Bataclan will now go down as a similar watershed. No one’s every been in that situation at a gig – 90 people killed at one show, out of 1,500 – so it has to rise to the top of the agenda. We can’t just keep talking about safe rigging; there might be something more dangerous out there…

It strikes me they’ve got the right guy, Steev, to strike this balance of cool head, light touch and safe hands…
I’d like to think so! I’m not a panic merchant, but at the same time I don’t want to be too relaxed about it. I just don’t want it to appear like we’re anything different. We’re a very small team, nine people! We just want to continue the rock and roll we’re doing, and honour those kids that came to the Bataclan…

+ At press time, concert promoter Live Nation announced it had upgraded security at its US concerts and events following the Bataclan attack. More than a dozen arenas have announced beefed-up security at Live Nation’s request, screening fans with metal detectors and limiting what type of bags fans can be brought into concerts and events, according to online magazine Amplify.