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.”


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.”


“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.