Overcoming Health Challenges: Life on the Road with Perry De Gennaro

For a while now I’ve been thinking about starting a blog series of written pieces featuring interviews with arts industry professionals, telling the stories of how they have managed to ‘hack’ their unpredictable lifestyles and reach a balance of optimal health, and still crush it at work! So it almost seemed like a sign when I got a message from Perry De Gennaro via Instagram recently. Perry is a touring playback tech, working with some of the world’s biggest acts in the EDM/pop music scenes. He also happens to have Crohn’s disease. This has led him to find some unique ways to manage his health whilst living and working on the road, and I’m so happy that Perry shared some of these insights with me - I think his determination to pursue a balanced life with an ongoing health challenge like Crohn’s is super inspiring! Read on for some insights into how Perry has turned an immune deficiency into a positive lifestyle change.

Touring playback tech and drummer Perry De Gennaro. Image by Stu McKay |  @mckaysenberg

Touring playback tech and drummer Perry De Gennaro. Image by Stu McKay | @mckaysenberg

What do you do for a living?

I’m a touring Playback Tech working with national and international acts. I also build custom playback rigs for artists.

Can you tell us a little bit about your work, what a typical day or week involves, and how you came to be working in the music industry?

The playback tech job involves setup, maintenance, operation and troubleshooting of multiple laptops and anything that interfaces with them - this can include keyboards, midi controllers, audio and midi interfaces and switchers. Playback systems and Ableton Live sessions for electronic music can get very complex very quickly which makes the job very interesting but also very rewarding. 

A typical day usually involves an early wake up, some degree of travel whether it be flying or driving, set up, soundcheck, a show, pack up, load truck, sleep as much as possible and repeat! It’s a dream job!

I’ve been a drummer my whole life and I’ve been gigging from the day I turned 18 and was allowed in venues so I’ve always been lurking in the industry but when I started touring, I was just in the right place at the right time, happened to impress the right people and have been fortunate enough to be busy ever since.  There are some very kind people around and they’ve been very kind to me which I’m very grateful for.

Describe your health challenges and what steps you have taken to manage them.

So, I’ve got Crohn’s Disease and a life threatening nut allergy… which makes finding a simple meal while on tour (or anywhere apart from home) somewhat of a mission. For those who are unfamiliar with Crohn’s Disease, the most basic explanation of it is; it’s an inflammatory bowel disease which can cause internal bleeding, holes in your digestive tract and also causes malnutrition in a lot of cases as the food you’re eating isn’t digested properly. It’s one of those things that anyone can get for almost no apparent reason. For me, I was going through a pretty stressful time when I was diagnosed… I remember sitting on the ground curled up in a ball in agony with the sharpest, most intense stomach cramp ever and 30 seconds later, I was completely fine. That was the first sign that something wasn’t quite right. Then, over the next 3 weeks, I basically exhibited every symptom in the book (not pleasant) including losing 10 kilos in 3 weeks. I was a pretty skinny guy with no extra weight to lose, so needless to say I looked pretty unwell.

As for the other symptoms; frequent diarrhoea, bleeding, abdominal pain and cramping, fatigue and having no energy regardless of how much I slept… the weight loss was a result of the malnutrition and on top of that I also never felt like eating.

I think I saw 6 different GP’s, had 15 blood tests and no one could figure out what was wrong with me until I saw a doctor who had recently graduated uni - within 5 minutes of chatting, I had a referral to a specialist and I was finally getting somewhere! 

Crohn’s is thought to be caused by an over-active immune system so I was taking some pretty scary immune suppressing medication… as a result, I needed weekly blood tests to make sure the medication wasn't doing any damage to the rest of my body. After one of my blood tests, I was advised to stop taking the medication and that was the first time being medication free since I was diagnosed. Scary! 

At first, I tried cutting out meat from my diet as I read that a big percentage of ’normal' people struggle to digest it. That helped, but it wasn’t enough. So after more research and talking about it with as many people as possible, I cut out all dairy from my diet as well. To my surprise, 36 hours later I was symptom free and medication free.

A few weeks later my doctors told me to start taking my medication again… That was a year and a half ago and I’m still medication free.

I guess I sort of fell into a vegan diet without even trying and it’s totally changed my life. Crohn’s aside, this diet has made it easier to fall asleep, easier to wake up, made it so much easier to focus and has given me loads of energy. It’s really quite amazing. I guess not drinking alcohol helps with that too! I’m in no way a ‘preachy vegan’ but I was amazed at the changes it made to my life and I’m always excited to share with others that might be struggling to find their groove! 

Pre-show, Peking Duk at Melbourne Arena, May 2019. Image by Pat Stevenson | @ patstevensonphoto

Pre-show, Peking Duk at Melbourne Arena, May 2019. Image by Pat Stevenson | @patstevensonphoto

What are some of the challenges of your job in terms of the lifestyle? 

The biggest challenge for me is working out how to eat well while on a tight touring schedule. With such strict dietary needs, it’s almost impossible to eat venue or festival catering as they often can't guarantee that the ‘vegan’ options are nut free. Obviously, I’d break my vegan diet if the only other option would kill me but with some thought and some planning, it’s not impossible to stick to eating what I need to eat.

It usually ends up costing more and taking longer but it’s a small price to pay knowing I’ll be fine to get on with my day after my meal.

Do you believe in work-life balance? If so, is this something that you focus on? How do you bring balance into your life when you're on the road frequently?

Totally! Work-life balance is something that has taken me years to learn and practice. Even before I started touring I struggled with it. I’m one of those people that can’t rest until something is done - for me that means, if I have an idea of how I can build something new into my playback rig or if I have a song idea, I won’t stop until it’s done. That’s something that has exhausted me in the past but more recently I’ve realised the importance of spending time with people rather than gear! Haha! Thankfully, my parter Sarah, is the most supportive person I’ve ever met and always pushes me to do cool things and I’m massively grateful for that!

What are your top 5 self care practices?

It’s an odd list but here we go!

  • Video Games - I am in no way a gamer, and I’m no good at video games but I find them to be the perfect way to de-stress! My mind is constantly active and always working so video games are the perfect distraction for me! Even though they don’t exactly relax my mind like meditation would, it’s time away from my usual thoughts!

  • Playing Drums - As I said before, I’ve been playing drums since I was young and even though I’m always surrounded by music, whether it be gigging or touring, drumming is still something I love to do. I still get excited by it like I did when I was starting out.

  • Burritos - How can burritos not be on the top 5 list of self care? Everyone needs burritos.

  • Writing Ideas Down - I find writing down every idea that I have really helps me relax. Clearing out your mind is never a bad thing and if you have a constantly active mind, knowing that everything you need to remember is written down somewhere is super relaxing.

  • Swimming - I’m recently getting back into swimming laps and loving it. It’s exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise.

Post-show, Peking Duk at Melbourne Arena, May 2019. Image by Pat Stevenson |  @patstevensonphoto

Post-show, Peking Duk at Melbourne Arena, May 2019. Image by Pat Stevenson | @patstevensonphoto

What's your favourite way to spend a day off?

Hanging with my partner Sarah and our pup Jez, watching reruns of That 70’s Show and eating burritos.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Delete the Facebook app from your phone, don’t wear shorts on stage, and drink some water every now and then.

If you’d like to check out more of Perry’s work you can follow him on Instagram @perrydegennaro. Thanks so much Perry for taking the time to share your health story!