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.”

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

“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.

Day 2 – Dama/Libra tour

So yeah, yesterday I got some flack for packing as much as for half the trip. But there was enough space, so no need to shuffle things around.

Last night we made it through Idaho, into Montana, and stopped at motel after motel–all full. We imagined the motels were filled with hundreds of bands, also touring.

We chatted with a guy wandering around a town at 4am, looking for his friend’s hotel. Only two in the town, so we wished him well. He seemed to be regretting his night of drinking and forgetting which hotel he was in.

Eventually, we stopped at a rest stop with a campground. Stuart slept on the top of the trailer like a boss. We slept inside all cramped but warm.

Today we drive endlessly beneath the open Montana skies. These are the childhood realms of Stuart and Joel, so we listen to eclectic tales of earlier times. Endless fields of hay and cattle, captured by craggy peaks in the distance.

We will be taking shifts, driving all night. We’re behind schedule, but in high spirits. Caffeine is our solace.

Day 1 – An attempt to leave Seattle

Okay we just need to leave town. At this point, that’s the goal. Just leave. Will we, though?

We wanted to hit the road at 12:45 when Joel arrived, but there has been a battle of day jobs, trailers, loading, and then … Hemp Fest traffic strikes, with a second punch of stadium traffic… And my drums aren’t even in the van yet. One of those days.

I hope the van can make it up my hill at this point.

Also, I’m wondering if they will give me grief about packing too much. They are diehards, but I’m new to this. I only packed for 7 of the 14 days, so hopefully I’m not too much of a diva.

Dama/Libra Tour 2014

So, I have been saving up some blog ideas, but have had no real time to flesh them out because of this Dama/Libra tour. Perhaps I’ll have a moment while riding in the van to deal with that backlog.

I was thinking back to how it is that I got to be this fortunate, and ended up going back to 2003. So that’s a long story for another day. Suffice to say, I feel very fortunate. Stuart and Joel are incredibly kind hearted souls, so they are great to work with.

If you’re just getting caught up, Pitchfork gave Dama/Libra a 7.1 and wrote up a review. I think the reviewer missed the point of a few things, but in another way he really dug into the psychology of the album that felt very poignant.

It has been a real eye opener to work with Stuart, in the way that he intuitively thinks about time and space (in a musical sense). It’s made me have to question many of my own habits as a drummer. His music is so slow, that you must throw counting out the window and just rely on each other for queues and simply feel when it’s time to play a particular figure. It’s frightening to let go, yet also very freeing. His phrasing is so long, and notes so sparse, that you must enter a zen like state just to play the music. Very challenging, and very gratifying.

Joel brings thoughtful, and frankly vulnerable, lyrics to these songs. Sometimes I get distracted by their meaning, even while performing. Vulnerable really is the right term. Working with him in rehearsals, he’s the real thing. Singing, or just hanging out–it’s the same guy. It’s refreshing to work with a singer who is just so genuine.

Even the song, Destroy, which has one word: destroy, feels so right! He sings it right in the middle of the song, and it’s this sudden moment of clarity that then completely changes your point of view as the song continues along. I wonder if by “destroy”, he might also mean “renew”? I’ll need to ask him that tomorrow.

So here’s the vague tour route:


We leave… tomorrow! We’ll cram our belongings in a single van, and drive across the US. 7500 miles! I have never gone on a tour this long, so I’m excited!

I hope to see you along the way. Please stop by and say hi!

Oh, and I published the calendar, so I hope there are some places near you.