Day 9 – Part 1 – Dead or alive

As I write this now, I have been back home for quite a while and I’m starting to forget details. So please forgive me, as I start to backtrack or correct myself. In this case, I forgot to mention interesting facts: Dave is anti-bed bug and knows how to inspect mattresses. This will come in handy. Also, in Pittsburgh, we did have a mishap with our dearest chime-a-tron. One of the chimes sounded like a blacksmith hard at work, and other just didn’t work at all. So, that also led to cutting a few songs, including Only Medicine.

So, I awake the next day to the usual scene: Jake and Stuart have been up for hours, despite it being 7am in the freaking morning.  If memory serves me correctly, Jake lets us know that we have a new tour mascot that Stuart found. Stuart busts in, all out of sorts. Earlier that morning, he had found an adorable little baby mouse in the parking lot. It had been abandoned by its mom, perhaps who had gotten run over. The poor little thing soon died. Stuart named it Golieth, such a fighter but so fragile.

We zombie into the van, and head back the way we came to Philly. The whole ride, we’re either talking about sweet Golieth or we’re decompressing from last night’s disaster. Clearly the turnout for the fundraiser was off the hook, but we had not yet seen a room clear when we started playing. Stuart comes to the conclusion that it means we’re doing something right!

And he is likely right. We’re doing our daily check of The Mighty Oracle: The Great Internet, and we’re seeing some amazing reviews from Pitchfork, AV Club, and even a positive review from the local Pittsburgh thing where we bombed. Twitter is showing plays on radio stations across the US, and people are tweeting Dama/Libra in their playlists or their top lists of bands. It’s very surreal. If you’ve been reading this blog, you start to see a theme: we are either on the road, loading equipment, playing a show, or sleeping. For Stuart and Joel, there may be more interaction with folks–they’re recognizable and are often by the merch booth. I however, am not recognized. I’m “some drummer in the back”.

So it’s surreal in that I feel more isolated than at home. I don’t recognize anyone, and no one speaks to me unless I start up a conversation. You can’t see your listeners in the radio station. You barely get any flavor of the town, because there’s no time to just chill.  And then I go online and read reviews from major websites that I’ve respected for a long time. Almost contradictory… except for the merch. I hear about the take from the night, and it’s usually enough to cover gas. That seems good, and in line with the reviews. Stuart and Joel have die hard fans that are willing to check out their new thing. It’s really gratifying to be a part of watching this whole story unfold from the beginning. It usually takes me years to cultivate a new project. Stuart and Joel have hit the ground running.

At the end of the day, I may not be able to reconcile the online buzz with the solitude of touring but one thing is consistent: every single night, I feel the electricity on stage, the passion, the call of Joel’s voice, the vibrations of Stuart’s bass inside my bones, and the lush waves of sound from David and Jake washing over me. Sometimes the rooms are full, sometimes they are empty, but the music is a spiritual awakening for me every single night. It’s a metaphysical ritual, where I am somehow fortunate enough to be in the same room and even participate. I feel like an acolyte. To put this in perspective, I have been a fan of Stuart’s for quite a while. In the days of Sun0))) and Burning Witch, I will admit that I didn’t know his name. I suck at names. But I was a fan. And then there was a short moment where his world overlapped with Trey Spruance, who I am also a fan of, and I became aware of Asva–a super group in my eyes. I was there when they played Seattle. Stuart had a whole freaking organ set up on the floor of the venue. The drummer was made out of trees, sea monsters, and freight trains. I bought the t-shirt and CD. I think this was pre-facebook. Maybe the Friendster or Orkut days? Later, I find them on facebook, like their page, and am disappointed about lack of tour dates.

Fast forward to this day. Somehow, and it’s all fuzzy to me now, I am sitting in a van, worrying about the battery life of my phone, eating a coffee/banana breakfast, looking out across the empty parking lot at 9am in the morning at Stuart, who is talking to his dad on the phone as he does almost every day, on our way to play Philadelphia, and then a couple radio stations, and it’s my first tour across the entire US. In this brief moment of silence away from traffic, van engine, conversation, blaring stereo, and wind in my face, it strikes me that this moment feels like I had flipped a coin 5 times and it came up heads every single time. Let’s see… David started dating a friend of a friend, and one night he was hanging out at my band’s studio. That’s where we met. Fast forward, I was doing a CD release with a different band, and I asked Dave if his band wanted to join the bill. Indeed they did, and Jake was in that band, too, and they killed it. Manos de Plata. Fast forward… David was forming a new band with Jake, Holy Cities, and needed a drummer. I started rehearsing with them at a random one of those huge warehouses filled with spilled beer and practice spaces. And it turns out, so was Stuart. Fast forward, and he and Joel need a band to play their music in a live environment. Well, Jake had started playing trumpet on Asva albums by then, and so I think it just made sense for the rest of us to join up as a swat team to quickly make the live version of Dama/Libra a reality? I’m guessing. So, we play one defining show in Seattle, and that was excellent and I wished them all well. And then next thing I know, they have a tour planned and want to go on the road. And here I am in this parking lot, cracking up at Joel’s weird high pitched voice imitating a little kid, “well… I don’t know…” as he wonders out loud if he’ll drive or sleep in the back.

Well, all I know is, playing this kind of music that is so open and so slow and so dynamic is the best feeling in the world, and I feel a tinge of sadness that it’s half over and there are fewer shows than days left on the tour.

We all poop in the public restroom, climb back in the van, and pull back onto the road, and discuss as many songs we can think of about touring. Joel drives like a bat out of hell, yelling in his weird kid voice as he changes lanes, “I do what I want!” Jake and I start singing Bon Jovi.

It’s all the same, only the names will change
Every day, it seems we’re wasting away
Another place, where the faces are so cold
I drive all night, just to get back home

I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride
I’m wanted, dead or alive
Wanted, dead or alive

Sometimes I sleep, sometimes it’s not for days
The people I meet, always go their separate ways
Sometimes you tell the day
By the bottle that you drink
Sometimes you’re all alone and all you do is think

I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride
I’m wanted — WANTED! — dead or alive
Wanted — WANTED! — dead or alive

I walk these streets,  A loaded six string on my back
I play for keeps, cuz I might not make it back
I’ve been everywhere, still, I’m standing tall

I’ve seen a million faces,  AND I ROCKED THEM ALL

Jake and I crack up about the whole thing about knowing the day by the bottle you drink. “Guys, here’s your bottle of fruit loops vodka. OH IT MUST BE TUESDAY.”

I sing, “I’ve seen a hundred faces, AND I ROCKED THEM ALL.”

The smell of gas has continues as we cross the pass again back to Philly. We don’t seem to be leaking significantly, but it’s troubling. Will it get worse?

And there are other troubles. I completely trashed my brushes last night, and the other guys need music supplies. We can’t play without them. So we make the rare decision to visit a Guitar Center because we know it will be open. Plus, we want to give the van a rest after the pass. It’s raining and we run inside. I figure it’s all about being in and out, so we can make it for a sound check. I rush into the percussion department, and look around. The salesman asks me what I’m looking for, and I explain I want to buy some metal brushes. He starts talking to me about some new brand of multirods he has just got in stock, and how great they are. It takes me a moment to realize that he’s trying to sell me something unrelated. What? No. Metal brushes. He hands me a pair and says, “You’re in luck. These are so popular, we’re usually sold out.”

Gross.

I run out to the van, and Jake’s having a smoke in the rain.  “Where is everyone?” He laughs, and gives me a knowing smile. “Dave’s inside, making a major purchase.”

“What?”

“Just wait. You’ll see.”

In about a minute, Dave walks back to the van with something a little bulky. I laugh. I get it. It’s a keyboard. Dave is ecstatic. Of course he is. Of course he bought a keyboard.

You see, it’s a thing he does. And Guitar Center is often his prey. Dave knows his keyboards. And sometimes, Guitar Center does not. Maybe the name of the store tells it all. But at any rate, this isn’t Dave’s first rodeo. He tells the story of laying eyes on that keyboard and knowing exactly what it’s worth, having monitored craigslist and ebay as he does, and the pricetag is $100 lower than anything he’s seen. Meanwhile, the salesman is talking about how he plays with Blues Traveler and he would buy this keyboard if he wasn’t an employee. Yes, Blues Traveler Salesman, Dave will indeed buy this keyboard.

Dave is so pumped up, he’s exploding with excitement. He’s simultaneously shoving in batteries in the back, and navigating with his phone. We drive down this very long side street of Philly, past strip club after strip club, as Dave is putting his newfound prize champion through an obstacle course. He cackles every few minutes. We all can’t help but share in his excitement. Picture him with headphones, a keyboard perched on his lap, cell phone in one hand, other hand pressing buttons on the keyboard like a Star Trek redshirt. This is the most alive I’ve seen him the whole tour, other than after being discharged from the emergency room. Better not send him down to the planet on an away team…

We want to know, will he play on it tonight? Alas, no. He would need more time, and it’s not quite the right kind of keyboard anyway.

The strip clubs dwindle, and it’s mostly apartment buildings, with people hanging out on their porches and steps. It’s such a glorious thing to see, for this Seattleite. And then we reach the elevated train, and we know we’ve made it to Kung Fu Necktie in Philly.

 

Day 8 – Pittsburgh

There are two ways that I sleep, when blessed with a normal bed. In one scenario, it is just me and the cat. I sprawl out with full abandon. In the other scenario, I am sharing limited space with Susan and the body pillow that the cat sleeps on. I am balanced perfectly at the very edge of the bed on my side, even in sleep. This is a very special skill that I have perfected over the years.

I awake in a Queens apartment, perched delicately on the edge of the bed, giving room for Jake who I shared the bed with. People are talking about breakfast, so I turn to see if Jake has stirred. No Jake. He got up possibly hours previously, leaving me balanced obliviously to miss out on a perfectly good empty bed. Our host hands plates of mystery food to David and Joel. They are instructed not to ask. I get vegan oatmeal, and it’s absolutely delicious. I decide not to ask, as often vegan is not really vegan, and instead decide to scarf it down. Numerous roommates start to arrive or emerge. I lose track of who all lives in this New York apartment. I reflect briefly on how this is the direction Seattle is headed.

I stand out on the balcony, taking in the sprawling view of the Queens bridge and the grungy cityscape beyond. The unmistakable echo of our van filters up to my ears from a few blocks away. Stuart and Jake must be near. Likely returning from picking up more CDs from the label, to refresh our stash for the rest of the trip.

I get packed by the time they climb the stairs, and we start to give our farewells while taking turns with the bathroom. And indeed, not only did Stuart and Jake pick up the CDs, but they also stopped by a mechanic. It seems the muffler was dangling uselessly under the van, so might as well remove that hangnail. Well that’s fine, we apparently had been muffler free for quite a while. We’re given a parting gift of a recommendation for a bridge and that we should use the Waze app, which uses crowd sourcing as part of giving directions.

We shuffle down to the van–yet again Stuart has deftly parallel parked the van+trailer–and we head off towards Pittsburgh. As usual, we know our route, but only have enough time to make it if there’s no traffic. And first we have to get through New York traffic. David has taken on navigator duty and is using Waze to much success. I am relieved, as I’m pretty sure he has been using the notorious Apple Maps. I am too afraid to ask.

Traffic sucks, and for some reason we are going North. I don’t ask. By the time we get across the George Washington Bridge, we all have to pee and pull over at the first fascist rest area. I take over as driver, and Stuart passes out in the very back. After all, he got up at sunrise, as per the usual.

We are on the New Jersey Turnpike. It is actually two parallel turnpikes–one for trucks and one for cars. I randomly choose the one for cars, not realizing that my choice is locked in until Pennsylvania.  This proves to be a poor choice. Traffic gets thick and slow, and the crazies start to set in.

David and I start into some kind of anachronistic parliamentary procedural retelling of a classic joke of a guy’s tour of hell. As we nobly continue from describing each level of hell, we pass various emergency exits that connect the two parallel freeways. There are always dudes in red sports cars illegally swerving through the break in the fence and then flooring it to get up to speed before getting rear ended. This seems like a thing that is done. I yield my minutes to the right honorable gentleman in the back left seat of the van, as we coast below jet after jet, and glide past electrical tower after electrical tower.

Eventually, we exit to a toll booth, I have the floor, and I summarize my soliloquy with the punch line, “Okay, coffee break’s over–back on your heads.”

I pay a frillion dollars to the friendly and chatty toll booth agent. In Seattle, there is one bridge where we are charged via a scanner above each lane. Even if you don’t buy a pass, they scan your license plate and mail you a check. Soon, these nice people will be looking for jobs, no matter how much their union fights for them. Automation of everything is inevitable. I’ve seen it with percussion. EDM is changing that irrevocably, and so sadly yet optimistically I adapt. I hope toll booth operators are ready to adapt.

Jake takes over the helm. Stuart rides shotgun. We enter a series of hills and tunnels. The road gets steep, and we start to smell gas. I try to type away another blog post. I’m hopelessly behind. I have three backup batteries, and yet I still have to carefully manage my phone usage. It’s all about battery saver mode and airplane mode whenever possible. Even though I have a double adapter to charge my phone and a battery, that often means the other two batteries haven’t charged overnight, and so it’s a constant battle to remember to rotate batteries to keep them all charged. I wish that I had figured out how to properly conserve battery life on my laptop. I promise myself I’ll figure this out for the next trip. And so I tap away in OneNote, so that I can later copy/paste to the WordPress app.

But yet again it’s too distracting. Joel is a road weathered warrior of the road trip. We rarely see him eat, or else it’s something meager. I have started to suspect that he has this grand system that he has learned over time, and these trips are nothing to him. After all, they must be his life. So easy going, always in a light mood. Perfectly fine with disengaging from conversation and putting on headphones or taking a nap. While this trip is a strange vacation for me, this is Joel’s day job. In many ways, I admire that he often appears to just happily exist in the moment. Yet, surprisingly I have been and continue to be engaged in all the conversation throughout this trip. I had hours of music saved on my phone, and plenty of material that I should be learning for an upcoming recording session. I ignore it, sometimes poking away at this journal. Even after a week, somehow we all have something to talk about–especially when we have the crazies.

Stuart advances the venue about our delay from traffic. There is some back and forth in calls, but we work it out that we will show up, load in, and play. No sound check yet again.

The weather gets thick with rain and mist as we cross the winding pass, and we worry about the smell of gas. We decide to start paying closer attention to mileage. Yet now we must start paying attention as we near Pittsburgh.

The rain continues as we pull up in front of the Brillobox, and humidity has risen. It’s warm outside, and steam rises from the streets. No place to park, so we pull around the corner. Not ideal, but we pull into a gas station and open up the van and trailer, while someone runs inside to gather intelligence.

We’ve arrived in perfect time. We start running in shifts through the rain across the street into the building. It’s a narrow glass door, and there’s a doorman, I see two flights of stairs ahead of me and there’s a second door at the base where people are entering and leaving a restaurant. Already chaos. I wait for some folks to come down the stairs, then I rush up to the top to encounter a rowdy and crowded room. It’s got that feeling that everyone knows everyone. Okay, this will be hard work, but I can tell these are good people, and there’s electricity in the air.

It’s a benefit for Karl Hendricks, a dude who consistently helped prop up and maintain the local Pittsburgh indie music scene. Joel felt a strong personal bond, and tonight we are just playing to support this benefit for him. You see, he’s sick, and insurance isn’t covering much. So I’m gratified to see such a packed turnout. I dump my stuff on the stage, then run back down the stairs for another pass. Everyone in the band is doing the same. Joel seems to be working the hardest, carrying anything and everything. Isn’t he supposed to be a vocalist? Like just show up with a microphone? No way, Joel works as hard as Stuart.

The stage starts to assemble, and the room is a sauna. I’m sweating like bacon. We start to do line checks and get situated. Again poor Dave is sitting directly next to my beautiful gong. He seems to like it. Folks are standing with beers, watching us, and we feel the pressure to start asap. Joel is talking to folks, and this is clearly his crowd. Stuart calls out the setlist, and it’s another abridged one, to be respectful to all the bands. It’s a packed lineup. Karl must be a rad dude, with all this turnout and support for the guy. This is what music is about. There’s no money in it for most musicians, unless you’re on the top 40, and so it’s a lifestyle. It’s family. It’s trust and it’s love. That’s why bands play benefits for free. Because they know that the scene would do the same for them.

We start with Moonshine and Lion, a pretty song with just Joel singing over some bells. I love starting with this tune, as it helps kind of get me in sync with the band. Jake and I are playing bells, and we follow Joel but we also have to play together. By the close of the song, I am in full focus and already switching around mallets in preparation for the next song, with my head in the zone.

We proceed to destroy the room with thunderous waves of bass, organs, gongs, propelling Joel’s voice into the room like a leaf on a fountain of holy water.

The last note fades out, and the bartender shouts, “YOU’RE DONE!!” The room is mostly empty. Apparently we’re not really their thing, but I don’t have time to reflect on this because we gotta tear down for the next band. People start streaming into the room as I fold up and push back my equipment against the back wall. This is a good trick to speed up the changeover, as long as there’s room. Well, it’s a bunch of indie bands tonight, so no problem.

I have to wrangle my beers from the bartender, who clearly is NOT happy about there being customers, and then run up another flight of stairs to get out of the sauna and attempt to cool off before I pass out from exhaustion. It’s a nearly empty high ceilinged room, with a few couches–and two adorable kittens! A black one and another flat faced one that is shaved like a poodle. They frolic and play around David and I, while I come close to napping. It’s a good life for these kittens. Lots of captive adults, and they have a cordoned off corner where they can always go hide if things get to frenetic. In fact, there are two kitty doors so they can relax in darkness. I envy them, and I down the cold beer and toweling off the river of sweat.

Eventually Joel comes upstairs, and shrieks in delight in discovery of Battle Arena Kittenden. Something that Joel, Jake, and I share is the love for kittens. For the rest of the evening, as rock and roll booms below us, Joe catches up with folks he hasn’t seen for a long time. I’ve gathered that his time in Vancouver has been a bit of a retreat. I can see that folks imply some kind of past history, and are enthusiastic about his recent adventures. Despite folks here being more interested in Joel’s indie rock side, and not so much any music lacking a groove, the night feels like a valuable opportunity for Joel to catch up with all the goings on–so I deem this a success.

Maybe Pittsburgh is more of a working town that just wants to blow off some steam and not get too fancy schmancy with more esoteric music, but they clearly are good folks (except for the bartender–screw him). As we fetch the van, a local reporter comes up and avails Stuart about his love for DAMA/LIBRA and the exclusive article he has written. Then, another random guy has us follow him back to his house where we can crash–but we can’t find reliable parking for the night so we have to abandon the offer.

The rain has subsided, and we drive down the lonely highway in search of a motel. We cram into a room with 2 beds and I crash out. Of course, Stuart and Jake carry on into the evening on the back patio, as I perch on the edge of the bed in perfect balance and drift off. I hope Karl is taken care of.

Day 7 – When it rains, it pours

In the morning, we wake, take our showers, drink the coffee, charge any remaining devices, talk about heavy metal of the ’90s, and dilly dally and procrastinate the usual amount. And then we’re out the door, and packing the van. Our precious chime-a-tron now gets the special treatment with a special padded spot in the back loft. From now on, the designated sleeper gets to snuggle with Chimey. Today, we are totally good on time, Stuart had no need to get up early for supplies, and it’s going to be a quick drive to our next destination.

We hit the road, backtracking a little, and then heading south west down the east coast toward New York. Brooklyn to be precise.

More tollbooths, corporate rest stops, and interchanges.

I forgot to mention the night before, we stopped at a corporate rest stop and there was a Boston Market. They had some deal where I could get actual veggies, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn bread. Ironically, this was probably the healthiest I’d eaten in quite a while. What a nice change from energy bars, trail mix, and juice/V8.

Anyway, no such luck today. But that’s fine, it’s a short trip and there was sure to be food in walking distance from St. Vitus.

We hit our first bridge into Queens, and traffic is at a stand still before the toll. I start to feel the crazies come on, but I control myself. I should have been posting tour notes, but I don’t have the mind for it today–and now the scenery is getting good. This area is so gritty. Buildings made of crumbling bricks, covered in graffiti. The bridge is rusted steel. Locals are hanging out on their doorsteps–something you never see in Seattle. We get on a road that is directly beneath a raised train, and follow beneath intervals of rumbling. With so many subways in New York, I wonder why there is a train that cuts down the center of Queens. We hit some construction, and it’s not obvious how to keep going. The van is in a turn lane, and we end up veering right. But it’s the runup to a bridge to Manhattan. There is no escape, we’re heading into Manhattan.

Everyone decides this is my fault, and so we switch over to David for directions by the time we enter Manhattan. We spin around a block and jump back on the bridge, now running out of time before sound check. It seems there is no escape, we must always be late. But it’s exciting to briefly visit the island, and cower beneath its towers and tremble within its bustling traffic, then to make our retreat.

We land back in Queens, and continue on our way across another bridge and into Brooklyn. St Vitus is apparently an unmarked black door between two markets.

St Vitus is a black altar to music. Everything is painted black, and there is stained glass in the ceiling. Somehow this club pulls off inviting a dive bar audience while remaining 100% classy. The bathrooms may be the classiest aspect of the joint. There a bunch of individual unisex bathrooms with locks that are dark, but clean. They have mirrors, and the paper towels are neatly stacked. I feel like I’m in a nice hotel. I vow to use the heck out of those bathrooms while I have the chance. At the bar, there is a significant variety of beers on tap. Then you walk through another portal into the main hall with the stage.

We’re late, and the soundperson isn’t into giving us a soundcheck because the headliner should be doing that. Except they aren’t there yet, and we appeal to his pragmatic sensibilities when we explain our complex setup and that we’re a touring band. He gets it, and we are granted a sound check. In this particular setup, we aren’t able to crack open the chime-a-tron until halfway into load-in and … she works! We let out a whoop, and then continue to bust our butts to complete the soundcheck. Dave turns down the gain on his amp, to hopefully avoid melting the crossover any further. I am able to get my gong setup, and have figured out how to smash the crap out of it without smashing Dave’s earplugged head.

All is well and we are able to backline most our gear. As we leave, there is a heated discussion with a group of people about the band performance order. This is perhaps the oldest argument in all of music. The soundperson is advocating one thing, but then some random guy wants to move us earlier. I figure this is some bandmember, so I stick up for our awesome soundperson and exclaim, “We need to do what the soundperson wants.” He turns to me and states, “Oh, I am so-and-so”.

Now, I can be completely socially incompetent, but here is a rare instance where I reason out that he would only be introducing himself by name if he was the owner. “Oh, so YOU are so-and-so!” I exclaim. “Yes, we should go with that band order! What a pleasure to meet you!”

I am an idiot.

And I walk out, glad to escape utter humiliation, grab some tacos from the handy dude standing there making vegan kimchee tacos, and then walk to the bar to order a beer. A woman turns to me and starts making conversation. I immediately get that feeling that she knows me or knows something about the band, and eventually discover that in fact she is from the label that is helping out Stuart and Joel. Ah it all makes sense, for why would anyone deliberately talk to me like that, unless they thought I was Stuart? But she was super nice, and later I met a few of her colleagues and they were all swell folks. It occurs to me that I should probably play my heart out tonight.

Apart from the first band that played experimental noise jazz much longer than their allotted time, all the bands were amazing. I knew we would have something to offer to everyone there, as it was all pertinent to our interests. Heavy, loud, pushing boundaries. Epistatis has a singer that is incredibly forboding and her screams are a wall of thunder and I soak it in. U SCO is mathy and they all play a ton of notes and it’s all very New York and awesome.

And then it’s time to go on. Well, after getting set up, it’s pretty clear that we’re cutting a few songs, thanks to the first band and a little bit due to there being too many bands on the bill and maybe a tad due to our complicated setup. We play our first song, head into the second song, and  Stuart’s amp stops making sound. We end up stopping half way through the song, as you just can’t continue with his music without him on bass. I’m devastated at the bad luck. I think to myself, the chime-a-tron is doing great so of course this happens.

Stuart calmly stops and starts troubleshooting without missing a beat. He’s checking connections and cables, says a few brief words to the audience, and narrows it down to his bass–all from under a crushing weight of complete silence in the room as people just stand and wait. Eventually, he asks around for a loaner bass, and gives a signal to just play the last two songs.

See Stuart is the kind of dude that never bucks under the pressure. The van is overheating? Fine, he’ll fix it. The engine is knocking? Fine, he’ll adjust the timing. Someone needs to drive all night? Fine, he’ll drive all night. Not enough space to sleep in the van? Fine, he’ll sleep outside in the mist on top of the trailer. An instrument is broken? Fine, he’ll get up at dawn and run around to stores until he gets the parts. Something is broken on his rig? Fine, we stop and figure it out, and then move on. We’re out of time? Fine, we’ll cut songs and still finish our set before the cutoff time so that the next band can play their whole set. And then he’ll grab a smoke like it aint no thing. What’s that? He hasn’t seen you in a while? Expect a bear hug. What’s that, you haven’t heard the Fripp/Hall song? He’ll stop everything and play it for you. Does he like your music? He’ll let you know. Are things getting a little dull? Don’t worry, Stuart has the best off color joke for the moment. Stuart Dalquist.

We finish, and I see smiles on the faces of the label dudes. I guess they get it. I’m impressed with them. And the crowd gets it too and applauds aggressively. We go on to sell enough merch to cover gas.

The night closes with Zevious, who I dearly hope are named after the 80s video game, an insane math metal band with impeccable musicality and creativity.

It’s time to load out, and here comes the rain. The humidity spikes, and we carefully plan the order that every item goes into the trailer and van so that nothing stands in the rain for long.

But don’t worry, Stuart knows exactly the correct order of every single item, and he personally loads it all. We set them up, he knocks them down. Stuart Dalquist.

We eventually find parking and walk to our host’s apartment. We get couches, mattresses, and beds. I share a bed with Jake, yet he does not spoon me and I get a full night’s rest.

Day 6 – Part 2 – The Middle East

The Boston area has fascinating architecture and street layout. While towns on the west coast are laid out in grids, Boston feels like a European city, where streets are arranged like a wagon wheel. Then add the ubiquity of cars and you have a situation of old meets new. Perhaps like peanut butter and chocolate, or perhaps like oil and water. Cambridge drivers have no concern for lines in the road or signaling. They just go where they feel at the moment, weaving in and out without any second thought. I don’t blame them–the roads do the same thing.

On our way, we stop at a uhaul. The safety chain has been dragging on the ground, and we want them to fix it. No one is there. Apparently this is a uhaul that does not need to worry about customer service.

We have to haggle our way into the loading zone outside The Middle East, and then load into a good sized room and stage. Everyone’s super pro, and their bass headroom is phenomenal. They even let us just backline our equipment, rather than take it all off stage after soundcheck. Stuart tests the chime-a-tron… Success! A cheer goes up from the band. The unit is becoming our most prized possession.

The attached restaurant has a very hip vibe. I like this scene immediately. It’s another one of those venues that exploits a culture in a tongue in cheek way. Maybe harmless, maybe not. We seem to find ourselves in places like this, such as Chop Suey back home. But the food is great!

The awesome thing about arriving early is that you can leave the venue. So much of touring is in a van or venue, and most interactions are on a rushed professional level. it’s a relief to go outside and maybe grab a real meal.

A few doors down is Veggie Galaxy, so Jake and I duck in. This is one of the rare moments for us to grab a decent vegan meal. Yes, I am fully prepared to live off of energy bars and v8 and fruit, but I will gladly enjoy a hot meal–especially after enduring the vitamin c devoid heartland. The decor is familiar. It’s common for veggie places to have a Space themed name, and 1950s decor.

There is a wait–a great sign! We grab a spot at the bar to get some local conversation, and our server is indeed witty and humorous. I proceed to order way too much, and it’s all good. Reuben on rye, hand made chips, an organic lager, and espresso frappe. Awesome.

There is a McDonalds across from Veggie Galaxy, FYI.

It’s a four band bill, which is a bit much for Seattle standards. But perhaps rent is very high on the east coast. At any rate, this is good because I can digest. Usually I don’t eat right before a show because drums are semi athletic.

It’s another great lineup of ambient and experimental groups. All stellar, and we are buying records and talking up the other bands. It’s so inspiring to have a similar lineup! I’m getting excited!

Between bands, we go back in the restaurant to get some air and sit. Some friends have shown up for this show so the inspiration continues to rise. A series of Michael Jackson songs play in the background, and we enjoy and discuss his controversy and talent.

At last, we hit the stage. So easy because we’re backlined! We are pumped up and our expression and communication is improving as we get used to playing in a live environment. Joel is quiet on the road, perhaps protecting his voice, but his singing is so full of presence and is different every time. It’s a pleasant surprise each show, and this is no exception. It’s a meta performance that we secretly get to enjoy.

By the end, my cymbal stands have fallen over and I’ve smashed up the new gong for the first time. It’s a little quiet, so I have to work extra hard. I consider destruction to be a good sign that I’m bringing enough energy to the show.

The burned plastic smell is back, and I discuss with Dave. This could be a melting crossover–again. You see, Dave has a history, and this is a new one. Will his amp become the new chime-a-tron?

Jake and I encourage Stuart to do merch. We don’t have the organizational energy of Susan anymore, and we need the gas money.

On the way back, we get lost several times in the dark winding back streets. Ask our phone batteries are dead. We consider pulling over and sleeping in the van, but fear the irony of waking up to discover we’re only a block away. Eventually we make it back to our host, and collapse in bed/floor/couch

Day 6 – Part 1 – McTour

I awake in the thick heat of the van bunk, and roll out into the brightness. We’ve stopped off at a service center for gas and snacks. The thing about this part of the country along I-90–passing through Indiana, Ohio, and New York–is that there are few exits and they are often toll portals or else don’t have services. So rest stops get replaced with full-on corporate strip malls. There’s never local flavor or culture, just a collection of fast food and quick marts, and gas. When America is traveling, healthy and thoughtful living is on hold.

Speaking of which, I want coffee. I’m in a jet lagged dream state, and steady caffeine provides a bump in alertness. There’s a McCafe, which seems like a rare opportunity to get something besides road sludge. I wearily ask from behind shielding shades if they have espresso. The cashier orders up an espresso, and someone runs to start it before I’ve even paid. I let her know that I don’t want an espresso, I want a soy latte. A manager comes over to confirm that I want an espresso and a latte. I am not quite able to catch up with what is transpiring, but I explain that I just want a soy latte. But it seems there is no soy milk. So I make a split moment poor decision and ask for drip. I stumble outside into the Sun, as likely some McDonalds employees are left with their orphan espressos.

The band sees my McDrip and proceeds to mock me for being a McKai. In their eyes, McBrown is a far deeper sin than generic brand road brown in a cup. By the end of the tour, all–and I mean all–McDonalds will have been gleefully pointed out to me with offers to pull over. There are a lot of McDonalds.

We continue to enjoy Stuart’s tollbooth exchanges, before reaching our pal’s fine home in Marlboro. We receive a nice tour, and then get to work: Jake naps in the air conditioned comfy-chair-ladened living room, we plug in all depleted devices for charging, take care of hygiene, and Stuart begins to dissect the chime-a-tron. Dave and I jump on wifi and search for chime samples as a back up plan. We are skeptical we’ll have a consistently working chime-a-tron, even if it is fixed.

An hour later, Stuart calls us into the garage. All the fragile silk threaded suspensions have been severed as the unit was bashed around in the trailer. Yet, Stuart thinks the rest of it should theoretically be in good shape. Dave and I work out that there are only 5 notes that we collectively play for the entire set, so Stuart gets to work on threading just those specific suspensions.

A chime-a-tron is similar in design as cheap grandfather clocks or doorbells. The “chime” is a small gauge rod, centimeters in diameter, that hangs from a thread. When you press a key, it triggers a piston to strike the rod from below. The rod vibrates with the help of carefully attached weights that tune the vibrations. At the top of the rods, there is a long pickup that captures the tones and sends the electric signal to an amplifier.

Another hour or so later, and Stuart calls me out to help him stand the thing up so we can adjust the placement of the pistons. He plays the first note and… Success! The chime rings out, and we let out a cheer!

Good thing, because Dave and I couldn’t find a decent chime sample. Stuart carefully loads the unit onto one half of the back loft. This baby is getting preferential treatment the rest of the trip!

Time to hit the road for the final push to Cambridge.

Day 5 – One More Night

No text yet from the band, so I rise and shower again because I can. By the time I’m out, the phone is ringing and they’re on their way.

I check out, gulp down all snacks left in the room, cram my clothes in my bags, and rush a block over to a cafe… But too late, they pull up and I’m in the van.

We decide to hit Stuart’s favorite music store. Some of our cables are bad, we’re low on batteries and strings, and I need a new China. It turns out that I had smashed out a shard at the last show and the cymbal had lost all sustain.

On the way, we pass Steve Albini’s studio in a massive yet virtually unmarked brick building. Awesome!

Andy’s in Chicago is a musician’s dream. All the obscure equipment you would usually have to order, and none of the usual inventory found everywhere else.

As I pass through each room, it feels like I am progressing deeper and deeper into a dream. I wonder if I will forget to ever leave. Each room is filled with delights

In the back of the store is a gong room. Massive gongs with $3k price tags hang on the walls. Stuart proceeds to play every single one. We all wish we could have afforded a gong, and had the space in the trailer to haul it. The lush resonance filling the room overcomes me, and I involuntarily sit.

Then Stuart finds a cute gong and whacks it. It sounds amazing! All the right overtones! Yet so small! I snatch it up immediately, grab a China, and I’m cooking with gas.

And so begins the long dark tollway of the soul, as we exit through the Chicago tollbooths, across the nation’s toll roads toward Cambridge.

Stuart has the most entertaining conversations with tollbooth personnel.

“Hey. ”
“That will be $20.23”
“Here’s your money.”
“Okay, good day.”
“NIGHT!”

“You have a tunnel under your booth! Do you use it?”
Silence.

“how much?”
” Sir, this is not the correct ticket.”
“Okay, have a good one.” Starts to pull forward.
“Sir, you have to pay!”
“I’m trying to!”

One time we pull up to the booth and hear screams. The agent is watching a horror flick on a little TV.

We run low on cash and start scrounging.

It’s the graveyard shift, and so Joel takes the helm. He is so affable. This isn’t his first rodeo. He never has a complaint.

We start to bide the time by deconstructing Phil Collin’s “One More Night”. Everyone awake agrees that we have such high regard for Phil Collins, that it is particularly egregious that he would allow such a poorly written afterthought to be released. The fact that it performed well is perhaps only a testament to the radio machine at the time, certainly not to any finesse of expression.

The song starts out asking for one more night. Then, he selfishly asks her to help him if he stumbles, even though presumably she’s not interested.

Then he repeats himself that he will not wait forever to receive said one more night.

In the next chorus, he drives the point hone that he really thinks she’s with someone else.

Lastly, in the bridge, he gets all stalker like with the iconicly poorly rhymed lyrics:

Like a river to the sea
I will always be with you
And if you sail away
I will follow you

So, he is going to stalk her basically. And let’s also rhyme you with you.

I lose count of the booths and drift off to sleep in the back.

Day 4 – Part 2 – The Hideout

The Chicago skyline view we had was inspiring. I had been texting with Susan and so I was doubly anticipatory of arrival. And indeed there she was when we pulled up. I start clapping and singing a made up song, and the rest of the band starts singing a made up song about Susan and it was glorious. Indeed she had scheduled a layover in Chicago on her way from New York to Seattle, a thing I was very much looking forward to.

It’s typical to see Susan in the audience, so the last few performances didn’t feel complete for me. Not only is it reassuring to see her familiar smiling face out in the audience, but she thoughtfully helps manage the things that I would forget or not have time for at all. I sure hope I do the same for her…

And true to form: she ordered food foe the band to be delivered so we didn’t have to eat energy bars. So thoughtful.

The Hideout is awesome. It has a Chicago alleyway in the back, with “Chicago” in graffiti sprawled in it. Joel thought of this much later that we should have gotten a Band Photo (Tm) against that perfect alleyway brick wall. I also discovered halfway through the night that there is a green room, besides the service passageway behind the stage. The green room is up some stairs behind a hidden door. It is in fact a Hideout (Tm), with beers, tables, and full bath. Sweet.

The bands are awesome on this night. First is Secret Means of Escape, a duo with guitarist Mike Shippy who has a crazy tuning and lots of bent notes. But it is done in a way that doesn’t seem dissonant at all. It is captivating and strange, much like the Hideout’s odd Americana decorative style and checkerboard floor.

The second band, Master Component, is also seemingly an expression of the venue itself. A duo of circuit bending and kitsch cowboy poetry and song. Very creative.

DAMA/LIBRA hits the stage with full force, a bit of an anomaly with our extended phrasing… Yet folks are responsive and appreciative! For the first time, I’m relaxed and fully in control, despite the missing chime-a-tron. The hand bells seem to fill in good enough, and they are no longer confusing. Yet, I notice an odd odor of melting plastic near the end. Well, doesn’t matter, everyone had fun and we made enough for gas money!

We load out in the 70% humidity, overpowering doe this Seattle wimp, and I bid my sweetie adieu as she has a 7am flight to catch.

The band does not stand for any of it. No no, I must spend the evening with Susan, they insist emphatically. We did not plan for this, as it could turn into a coordination nightmare. But no, we find ourselves jammed into the same cab and whisk off to the hotel.

It is a bittersweet night. Such a comfort to spend an evening together, to be regaled with Susan’s tales of a New York adventure… And yet I have only enough energy to shower, set an 8am alarm, and I pass out in exhaustion from loading hardware 4 times. She kindly lets me fade out, though I am sure it is equally frustrating to be in the same bed yet feel thousands of miles apart. In the morning, she is gone. No text yet from the band, so I reset the alarm, curl up in fetal position alone in a massive bed, and drift off to sleep again–more alone and cold than ever within a plush and well air-conditioned luxury suite hidden from band and soul mate.

Day 4 – Part 1 – WNUR

That night, we stay in a real house. It was such a delight to sit in a room. And that room came with air conditioning and cats! But really something other than a van is luxury at this point.

If someone isn’t in the very back sleeping, we’re sitting three across in the back seat, immersed in humidity. You only want to be in back if you’re sleepy, because it’s bumpy, loud, and filled with exhaust. Either way, you’re sweaty, and you never dry out. So glad I brought baby wipes.

So anyway, we crash out in their beautiful, air conditioned wood paneled home full of snuggling kittens, and get our first real showers in the morning.

Of course, Stuart had been up for hours, working on the broken chime-a-tron, and driving around looking for parts.

But without any success, we shove off for Chicago. Running late. Juice and energy bar for lunch.

Along the way, we try to stop at music stores, but they’re either closed on Mondays or out of business. Thanks for nothing joogle. Well, it was a great excuse to get out and walk and/or hobble around if you’re David.

We roll into WNUR with a deficiency of chimes, cables, batteries, and earplugs (this is why we can’t have nice things).

Guess what? We’re lost in Northwestern campus! So Joel jumps out and joins a clustered tour group, raises his hand, and asks for directions. The guide responds, “Isn’t it in that building covered in radio dishes?”

Yes, tour guide. Yes.

Stoked that its all on the same floor! We load in no time, and get set up. The building is shared with the video department, so we set up in a sound stage. Excited to play in a white room devoid of corners. We’re like the Beetles!

Since there’s no audience, we can set up in a circle, and we are inspired. Playing college radio takes some patience, as you are working with students and the equipment may be spotty. But the kids are completely involved, and take our complex nontraditional setup as a personal challenge. Even the DJ is helping to set up. Our friends are texting us, “Are you gonna play? I just hear Swedish music.” Ultimately, we play an hour late, but we had a blast, got some fun videos and photos, and I totally just played on the radio for the first time! Yeah!

At the end, I make a sign to let the control booth know we’re done. I think Stuart misinterpreted my motion, because he immediately laughs and says something that sounds like, Well that was fast!” (he said something else, but history is written by the victors.)

We are so late again, but that is now a way of life. We zoom toward The Hideout, too late for soundcheck–the iconic Chicago skyline before us.

Day 3 – David’s encore

I awake 7 hours later in civilization, and consume an energy bar and apple juice for breakfast.

We are still driving, and somehow have made up some time but stop briefly for sandwiches to go. We will miss a full sound check, and don’t want to be any later.

We notice many water towers, a rarity in Seattle, and many roadside shops with names like “CHEESE” and “Cheese Castle/Spirits”.

We finally enter Milwaukee and there’s literally a rockstar parking spot directly on the street out front of Quarters, long enough for our trailer. Also, we are exactly on time. Also, our hosts for the evening have already ordered pizzas (food and nonfood).

The chime-a-tron is broken. Okay, other than that, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG.

The booker apologizes ecstatically about the small space, but we love it. A double level stage, plenty of beer, and an awesome deck out back, wherein we gorge upon pizzas and compliment our hosts.

The night kicks off with some awesome ambient music by a gal who sits on the floor, surrounded by various effects pedals that gleam in the dark like ritualistic candles. I’ll need to find her later–it put me in the right mindset.

Our set went great. We figured out that I could play handbells in place of the chime-a-tron. A bit disorienting, but more visceral than pressing abstract keys. We are cozy on the stage, but a vast improvement over a two day van trek. It felt great to finally express the concepts we had traveled far for. I’d say we were elated. Low on energy reserves, low on hydration, low on sleep, but elated.

This is when our keyboardist, David, neurocardiogenic syncopees all over everything. He jumps up on stage, bangs his knee at full force on the way up, leans down on one amp in agony, and then careens unconscious across the stage, lands on the DX7, spins around, and smacks the back of his head on the stage–as the keyboard and stand land softly on his comatose form.

A trip to the ER later, and he’s fine. Except for the nastiest welt on his knee you will ever see. An autobiographical performance art inducing welt.

Oh, I should mention, as we were packing up before picking Dave up, a dude named Nick played a fantastic electro ambient set, awash with pulsing arpeggios. Both of us had our first set that night! How fitting.

Thank you Quarters for your kindness in the midst of drama. Dave is just fine, albeit a little more road hardened.

Day 2 – part 2 – Descent into madness

So then, Joel noticed that most Rush songs sound like variations of the theme for Land of the Lost. This is foreshadowing.

At some point in Montana, we discover the van was on the verge of overheating. That adds a level of suspense to our journey, yet I fully expect the van to break down at some point. It had only gotten 4 hours of downtime at this point and we weren’t even halfway to our first destination.

Stuart tops off the radiator, and we hesitantly venture forth. The ambiant heat of the air outside is the most oppressive yet, but we know our delicate Seattle sensibilities have much more to endure.

The Montana sunset is glorious, lighting up the violet clouds in the distance. That night, we pull over to witness the massive blood red moon, the numerous Perseod meteor showers, and the edge of our galaxy. And we pee.

Jake does the calculations, and we are woefully behind schedule. We will be driving nonstop to Milwaukee.

After catching up on my shuteye, I take the helm at midnight. Joel is navigator. We enter the ominous region of North Dakota.

The last time I took this road trip, I managed to sleep through North Dakota, and awoke in Minnesota to the maniacal laughter of Susan’s celebration of exodus.

This time, karma strikes and I find myself in thick fog on a perfectly straight dagger of highway piercing into oblivion. I can’t tel the true depth of visibility, but I lurch forward with one eye on the road and one eye on the temperature guide. I’m balancing velocity and temperature.

Joel and I are astonished by the uncountable number of towering flood lights both near the highway, and in the distance. Through the fog, faint glows flicker and dance like UFOs. On the horizon, a colony of red lights randomly blink on, then cut off simultaneously. The moon is barely a blur above us. The highway continues on.

It occurs to me that I’m riffing on Joel’s concept of Land of the Lost, as written by Rush. It’s 4am, and now I’m just singing every single Rush song I can think of, replaced with Sleestacks, pylons, and dinosaurs. I run out of material, and sing Rush in Björk’s voice. I include Sleestacks.

We pass a tower billowing fog into the fog, and agree the lights would not be such a great investment without their industrial fog machine.

There are no towns, there are no gas stations. I switch to the backup gas tank.

Then the lights vanish. We careen forward in complete darkness, with the driver babbling incoherently in some imagined interview between NPR’s Corey Flintoff and Björk, regarding her new iPhone app that simultaneously calls the entire world to warn them of the Dragon in her tummy that is behaving well but getting a little restless.

It’s 6am, and we reach a gas station. I sleep.

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