U.S. Visa Process Trendpiece: The Interviews We Didn’t Have Room For

Hopefully, by now, you’ve had a chance to dig into the trend piece in the May 2020 issue concerning the process bands have to go through in order to secure the proper visa in order to tour the U.S. And hopefully, you’re a bit more sympathetic to what bands from overseas have to put up with, why shows/tours get cancelled and even why merch prices are sometimes the way they are. Maybe it’s even given you pause to reconsider or regret any angry and uninformed comments you’ve posted online in the past. Probably not, but slap me silly for being an optimist.

Given the limitations of word counts and space in relation to the fact we could have gone on and on with this story, there had to be a kill point decided upon about what and how much to include in the piece that appeared in the magazine. This unfortunately meant a couple of folks interviewed couldn’t have their contributions weaved into the story. But seeing as they took the time to talk to us, we didn’t want to leave them out to dry on this issue. Below, you’ll find transcriptions of interviews originally conducted for the story with Wake guitarist Rob LaChance and Venomous Concept, Lock Up and ex-Brutal Truth vocalist Kevin Sharp. We regret not being able to include them in the main story, but here you’ll be able to read about how the visa process for Canadian bands differs from other countries and Sharp’s holistic rants about the process after many years of touring, tour managing and playing in bands with members from overseas.

WAKE – Rob LaChance

Describe the process Wake, as a Canadian band, has to go through to get visas to tour the U.S.
We’ve gone through the proper channels for the last eight years with the full American P-2 visa. We’ve always tried to keep things on the up and up just for the fact that we don’t want to risk jeopardizing an entire tour because of a lie or something stupid like that. I’d never jeopardize all the hard work promoters do or the other bands and stuff like that. It’s not that easy of a process to make work, but it’s not that expensive either, at least for Canadian bands going into the states. For a year, I think it’s $1200-$1300.

That’s for the whole band?
Yeah, the band. What happens is that each individual member has to join the musician’s union wherever you’re from and once you’re all a part of the AFM, they petition for you, you pay them money for the visa fees and that’s the way it works. Here’s where I think it gets to be a little different: for Canadian bands to go over, on the one side of it, you have to have individual contracts for each show which is kind of difficult because the usual processing time for the visas can be up to 90 days. So, getting signed contracts and shows and venues booked in the states three months ahead of time is really fucking difficult, especially for smaller bands. I’m sure for big bands it’s not that hard, but the way booking works, you get a soft holds in cities and nothing is really confirmed because promoters don’t want to sign contracts. There are some booking agencies who can vouch for you and will pretty much write a letter for you saying that you’re going to be at these venues and so on. Also, don’t ever try to change a member, that’s for sure. We had a member change while we were going through the process and we just forgot about it. I think the change for the initial member was around $1000 to have him replaced on a visa we hadn’t even received yet. We just said fuck it and went as a four-piece on that tour.

What forms are you filling out on the P-2 form and what are they asking you other than what you mentioned about show contracts? Because it seems counterintuitive to book a tour before you even secure the documents enabling you to do a tour.
Exactly. The risk of screwing over promoters is still there. It’s not any fault of the musician, it comes down to the visas, obviously. Anything can happen. I remember at one point, we applied for a visa and we checked the website that tells you the general wait time for processing. We went on there and it said that the average processing time was 30 days. So, we’re thinking, ‘We have tons of time to do all the paperwork, no big deal.’ Of course, we send it in and the day we sent it all in, I go on the website and it says that due to backup in the processing queue, they wanted members to submit up to 90 days. So, we were completely screwed, even though we sent it off and got it to them. Because we weren’t going to get our visas in time for a tour, we had to pay the additional $1,500 for expedited processing.

The Europeans I’ve spoken to all have to go for embassy interviews in their home countries and talk about some pretty detailed and extensive background questions. I know Canadians don’t have to do the embassy thing, however, what are they asking of you on the paperwork?
They want to know that you have a passport, whether you’ve been convicted of a crime, if you’ve ever been an exchange student, they want to know what you do for a living, if you have travel insurance, they want to see proof of AFM membership… it seems like it’s not as crazy as what people from other countries have to deal with.

Another thing bands from overseas have said is that they have the petitioner on the U.S. side working with them to demonstrate that there’s demand or interest for their band to play the U.S.
Oh shit! Really? No, we’ve never had to do anything like that. That’s pretty crazy.

When you apply is it for a full calendar year or one tour at a time?
I believe the way it works is that you have to have what they call an “engagement” booked in the states every 30 days, or maybe it’s 60. I’m pretty sure you have to be playing a show in the states every 30 or 60 days.

So, while the process seems to be less difficult for Canadians, it’s obvious that a lot of these regulations have been created by people who have no understanding of the way touring works.
Definitely, to the first part of that and, definitely no to the second part [laughs].

Is that something you’ve also dealt with during the process or when crossing the border: that customs agents have little to no idea what they’re enforcing.
I will tell you this: every single time I’ve taken my visa letter to the border, they have absolutely no idea what it is or what they’re supposed to do about it. And every single time, the experience is different. They usually looks at it and go, “Umm, what is this?” and they’re confused and don’t know what to do. We’ve even been given shit for taking the paperwork there! They’ll say stuff like, “This piece of paper isn’t signed by a consulate” or something like that and I have to tell them, “No, this is from your government. Your government sent this to me and I’m supposed to show this to you.” It’s like we know how it works but they don’t. I think the P-2 world to them is so bizarre and not something they’re used to. It’s very different, but also the P-2 isn’t a guarantee you’re going to get into the states either. I don’t think they look into you that hard [during the application process]. I think they dig more into your past when you get to the border. So, you get a lot of people feeling entitled because they have this visa and technically they are if they’ve never committed a crime or a felony, but Customs and the Department of Homeland Security don’t want you there. So, they’re going to look at any way to not let you in. At least that’s the way I’ve always felt about it when crossing the border. Here’s a funny story: last time we went into the states we were crossing from Quebec into one of the northeast states. I had a bunch of shirts that I actually had printed in the states and shipped to Canada before the tour. We go to cross the border and it was this super small crossing and it’s this old guy with no clue. I show him my P-2 and he looks at it like it’s in Chinese and says, “I guess I gotta call someone.” So, he calls someone and they explain to him how the P-2 works and he looks it over and asks if we have any merchandise. I tell him we have a few boxes of shirts and some records in the back. He opens up a box of shirts and asks where they were made. I told them they were printed in the U.S. He goes back into the office, a few minutes goes by and I start to see him making phone calls and I start thinking, ‘Oh fuck, here we go! What now?’ He pulls me aside and says, “I’m going to give you one more chance not to lie to me.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” “I asked where you made these shirts.” I told them it was the U.S. and even gave him the name of the place they were printed. He’s like, “I’m probably going to have to deny you.” I’m like, “What? Why?” He pulls on the tag of the shirt and the shirt says ‘Made in China.’ So, the shirt itself was made in China, but printed in the U.S., but to him it was made in China. See what I mean? They have no idea what’s going on.

The way I’ve had it put to me is that there will be a lot of delays in the visa process, but very few outright denials.
Yeah, I’ve never heard of anyone ever being straight up denied.

Is there any other country where you’ve experienced a process like this?
We went to England once and we were asked for visas. We played dumb and said we didn’t have them, but every other time we’ve been to Europe we’ve never had issues and no one has ever really asked for anything. We went to Switzerland once and they didn’t ask for visas, but it was an actual border crossing, not like the rest of Europe where you just drive through.

Have you noticed a difference in the process between the Obama administration and Trump’s?
Zero difference. It’s the same mess.

Kevin Sharp

So, we’re because when it was decided we were going to do a piece about the U.S. visa process, Decibel’s Albert Mudrian pointed me in your direction, mentioning that you’re someone with a lot to say on the matter.
[Laughs] Well….as a foreigner, they randomly fuck with people. I’m under the impression that’s it all part of an isolation tactic. The tariff war, trying to disrupt the economy overseas and from people making money here, that kind of thing. But everyone has their opinion and it’s just a rough guess. I’ve looked at the “additional information” that they’re asking for and it’s fucking amazing [laughter]. All that shit that went down with Shane was ludicrous. I would think that if you’re spending as much money as Shane has through Napalm and all the other bands over the years – I would venture to say that he’s probably laid down $40K over the years in work papers – that you would note the people that have been consistently doing this and working here and there would be a fast track for those people which is why I’m led to believe it’s all random and to jack up the system.

One thing that’s come to light is how reapplying bands from overseas keep having to having to fill out the same paperwork over and over, each time.
It’s like it’s made to be a pain in the ass just to make it so. It’s like touring Russia; they purposely use Russian characters in the paperwork and it turns into a situation where you have to pay a travel agent $500 to run the papers. All of these things are just political fuckery and retaliatory politics. A few years ago when you’d go down to Chile, they had some strange tax, I think it was $250, that you could only pay when you landed and the only reason they had it was because the U.S. had the same thing for Chilean citizens coming to the states. There were five countries that the U.S. decided to poke and in turn they reciprocated to Americans going into their country. It has nothing to do with security, terrorism, Muslims and this and that. People will take that into that court because that’s where we’re at now with our thinking, but this is just random shit. It has to do with isolating and it’s sort of reminiscent of the way it used to be going into Canada where they didn’t like us, we didn’t like them and back in the early ’90s they would sit you there at the border and look at the time when you’re show was scheduled and time it so that they’d let you in so you’d get to the show as the doors were opening. They’d do shit like that just to fuck with you and make it a pain in the ass because they thought the money should be going to Canadian artists sort of thing. I know that currently we don’t have to apply for work visas for the EU; it’s 300 pounds to get into the UK as a US band, but all that’s probably going to change with the Brexit thing. I know there’s a huge concern over there about UK bands getting into Europe. It’s kind of weird because if you look at it from 15 years ago, you’d think technology would make things easier.

Yeah, the process seems to be moving backwards in relation to the how things are moving forward, at least technologically.
Again, it’s going to get in to politics, but currently the thinking in the U.S. is to “get back to the good old days” and to have things be like the way they were. And that’s the way it was back in the day; it was a fucking nutduster getting from country to country in Europe. It was a pain in the ass. It’s all unravelling further even with technology which is kind of strange. With happened with Orange Goblin’s drummer and Shane is that they train-wrecked the tour and there was no “Sorry you lost all that income.” That’s what it is and that’s what will happen; when it becomes a gamble as to whether a whole band will come through, that’s when bands will opt to tour other places because it’s a huge pain in the ass.

There’s a political side, yes, but a lot of it also seems to come down to dollars and cents and paying to go through the process before you even get the visa to allow you to tour seems wildly counterintuitive.
Yeah, but they don’t care. I understand what you’re saying, but it’s just this bloated system. There were probably 15 people who had Shane’s paperwork hit their desk. I look at it like when I run paperwork for building permits; it’s a nightmare. It’s not that I don’t do the work properly, it’s that I can’t deal with the process. It’s mind numbing, blows my mind and drags things out, costs a lot of money, but that’s our government: this bloated thing that drains money and there’s no finite thinking behind things. Someone has currently decided that it’s annoying that these people are coming over and earning U.S. dollars. So, they make it a pain in the ass by randomly flagging people. Look at it this way: I don’t think we’ll see Orange Goblin in this country ever again. They’re that pissed.

Yeah! Think about it: all the money on paperwork and flights and if a handful of people don’t make it through, why would you do that? Touring the U.S. is hard, it’s a pain in the ass, it’s not as financially rewarding, the promoters are shittier, the logistics are a nightmare, getting a bus from gig to gig is expensive and shows are 3-500 miles from each other. Why on earth would you take a chance on going through the headache of playing here if there was even remotely a chance of thousands of dollars being pissed away from the get go? They’ll just book elsewhere. It’s nothing to go down to South American and tour, it’s easier to tour Europe. Why wouldn’t you do that instead?

If you had a magic wand to make changes to the system, what would you do?
I think this is more symptomatic of a greater issue of a global isolation movement that’s going on, whether it’s Brexit or building walls. And walls don’t have to be physical, man. Walls are being built everywhere and it’s disruptive. You have a collision between global economy/global capitalism and that isolation with trade wars and tariffs and all that and everybody loses, not just a band filling out paperwork. This kind of pissing match makes it tough in many directions and who’s to say who’s going to win?

And what is a win?
Exactly! What is a win? That’s the problem with this whole Team America versus Team Everywhere Else bullshit; it has nothing to do with issues or getting anything done. It’s all about my team is better than your team. It’s fucking stupid of you ask me.