It's that heavy dragging sensation, like my bone mass creeping upward, that wakes me. We've begun our descent to London Gatwick, and the video playing at the front of the cabin is rattling on about airport procedures. The possibilities are dizzying. Groggy and unsure of my surroundings, I'm unable to decide which directions apply to me. Staying in London? Going through customs? I am traveling elsewhere. I am continuing to another country. Turn left. Turn right. Take the escalator. Don't forget to fill out a landing card. Unless I'm not required to? I am not prepared for this.
Who could blame me? I've had hardly any time to prepare. It's only been 10 weeks since Volcom Entertainment, the record label representing my band, Birds of Avalon, called to ask if we were available for a two-week European tour in November. Sure, delighted, but this November? We were a tad skeptical. Tours like this can take months to book, and winter is usually the off season for carnies like us. Plus we'd already played more than 100 shows in the U.S. and Canada this year. Not only is that a lot of driving time, it's a lot of together time.
Fortunately we all get along pretty well. I've known Paul Siler, Cheetie Kumar and Craig Tilley—our guitar players and singer, respectively—for years thanks to the small world of Raleigh music. I used to go see Paul and Cheetie's old band, The Cherry Valence, whenever I could. I got to know them and Craig even better while we all worked at Kings Barcade, an exceptional little rock club of which Paul was part owner. Although I didn't really know Scott Nurkin, our drummer, before the band started, we've hit it off. We're all like family. As a matter of fact, Paul and Cheetie are family. They got married a while back after dating for like a jillion years.
For the first two weeks of the tour, we'll be sharing the bill with our label mates from Los Angeles, Year Long Disaster, starting in Portugal and ending in the Netherlands. We'll add an extra week by hopping on shows with our friends Monotonix and Black Mountain. Along the way, we'll play in Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and the South of France. We'll have a tour bus and a tour manager, luxuries we don't quite understand. My—our—excitement outweighs my apprehension by several orders of magnitude.
So, today, we land. We have a three-hour layover at Gatwick before we continue to Lisbon. It's early morning here, but jetlag has already scrambled my orientation to North Carolina time. I stumble upstairs with Scott in search of sandwiches. I need something to help me forget my RDU experience last night: I ordered a Scotch on the rocks, and the sap behind the bar served it to me with a lemon wedge. Who does that? An omen for the weeks to come, perhaps?
We arrive in Lisbon and check into our hotel. Our local contacts take us to dinner downtown. The place is tiny, but we pack in. As soon as we sit down, we're treated to an array of olives, cheese, dried meats and bottles of the local vintage, Dao. Paul orders whole fried whiting, and we all share the heads. This will be our only night without a show for the next two weeks, and everyone is determined to relax.
Most of our party turns in early, but Craig and I stay out to capture a little more of the local flavor. We duck into a little bar with a lonely piano in the corner, and Craig starts to bang away and sing a tune I can describe only as spontaneous. The DJ stops his turntables, and the patrons seem more bemused than annoyed. They even afford him scattered applause.
"What was that song?" I ask.
"Well, uh, I have no idea."
Today is Thanksgiving, at least back in the States. Here it's just another sunny day. Paul, Cheetie and I decide to visit the castle of Sao George, which beckons from atop a steep hill. We climb through narrow alleyways, across uneven stones to the foot of the fortress. We can't find the entrance, but we do find a nice terrace overlooking the city and the sea. The view—white houses, orange roofs, tumbling across the clustered slopes of the city—reminds me of that of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
By lunch, it's time to meet up with the rest of the crew and head to the club for our show. This is where we rendezvous with our tour bus, which will take us through the first two weeks. None of us have ever toured on a tour bus before. I've only ever been on one once or twice. Ours is fairly luxurious: sleeps 10, two living rooms, a TV, DVD player, fridge. Lucky for me, I'm not the one who has to figure out how to maneuver this beast through impossibly narrow streets of cities with little space for parking. That's a job for our driver, Vlady, and he seems to be quite the professional.
We also meet our tour mates, Year Long Disaster, at the show. Few things about this band: Frontman Daniel Davies is the son of Dave Davies from the Kinks, and the drummer is Brad Hargreaves from Third Eye Blind. Bassist Rich Mullins was in a band called Karma to Burn. Year Long Disaster plays hard rock with plenty of hooks—sort of like Soundgarden but a little weirder. The story is that they met in rehab. I still wonder if that's true....
We play in a club called Bauhaus, which isn't so much a rock club as a Euro-disco in disguise. I have no idea what to expect from the crowd here. The only thing I know about crowds in Portugal is what I heard from our friends in Valient Thorr. When they played here, a bunch of guys in the crowd started ripping each others' shirts off. Umberto, one of the promoters, laughs about this. "Oh, yes, yes," he says in English. "This is me! I rip the shirts off too."
There are televisions scattered throughout the club, all playing a continuous video loop of revelers on some enchanted evening with plenty of sexy dancing in sexy outfits. In one particularly engaging sequence, a shirtless, gypsy-looking guy passes a live anaconda to a woman in a devil suit, who performs a slightly unsavory pantomime with the hapless beast (the snake, I mean). I hope people don't expect something similiar from us.
We also have to negotiate playing on rented equipment. We were able to bring guitars, cymbals, a snare drum and a small keyboard. The amplifiers and the rest of the drum kit are rented. When you play on strange equipment, you have to find ways to approximate something you've worked for years to perfect. We won't sound like ourselves to our own ears. It's like playing yourself in a bad movie.
Unsurprisingly, our show is spotty. Paul's guitar keeps cutting out. Scott's snare breaks twice. My bass sounds like it's been eating too many marshmallows. I get the sensation that at any second, a chasm will open up in the floor and the whole stage will collapse into oblivion. This is what I've learned to expect from the first night of a tour and considering all the X factors tonight, I'm surprised it doesn't go worse. The crowd is appreciative, if a bit distracted. I manage to sell a few CDs after our set. I even cut one guy a deal when he explains he only has 10 euros (we're selling them for 15): "Thank you so much. I will listen to this in my Mercedes!"
After the show, I meet our sound tech, Eric, who is from the Netherlands. He is friendly, generous and loves Irish whiskey. I find him quite agreeable. I also meet Dawn, our tour manager. She must have a million things on her mind. There are schedules to distribute, road directions to determine ... at least that's what she should be doing....
We load onto the bus for an overnight drive to Bilbao in northern Spain. I can no longer tell the difference between tired, hungry and excited, and—being a notorious insomniac—I imagine I won't be able to sleep. But I sleep ... and sleep ... and sleep ... and sleep ... almost 11 hours. More sleep than I've had in the past two nights combined.
But the trip to Bilbao was only supposed to take 10 hours?
I wake up to the sound of Vlady yelling into his cell phone in German, undoubtedly cursing. The bus has broken down hours from our destination. We are stranded at a truck stop in the Spanish countryside....
We spend two hours waiting for a mechanic. Fortunately, there is an exquisite restaurant hiding behind the drab façade of the truck stop. Inside, whole suckling pigs hang from the ceiling. There is a large stone oven, and the chef loads in pig after pig. I ask, in halting Spanish, if it's possible to get a borilla, a sandwich, made with this meat. "A sandwich? With this?" he scoffs, turning away.
Over at the bar, my Spanish works well enough to get me stuffed peppers and some strong coffee. I'm on my third cup, rattling on my stool, when Cheetie tells me the bus is ready to go. It seems Vlady finally got sick of waiting for the mechanic to arrive. He fixed the bus himself. Why didn't he do this an hour ago?
The drive to Bilbao, deep in the Basque country of northern Spain, seems endless. We arrive an hour after the show's start time but spend another hour trying to find the club. It turns out our directions are garbage. We finally find the club, only 20 minutes before a citywide curfew of 10:30 p.m. We load in our gear like some kind of monkey commando raid. The crowd goes nuts, hollering and slinging beer. They're confused when we say goodnight after the first song. Year Long Disaster plays nearly an entire set after being called back for several encores. The curfew, it seems, is not as strict as we were led to believe.
No time to fret, though: We load back into the bus and drive all night to our next show in Biarritz, France. We arrive several hours later than expected, though still in the early afternoon. We're received at the Vestal Watch company house and treated to an exceptional French breakfast: enormous pancakes, omelets and thick-cut bacon. Everything is cooked on an outdoor griddle in the house's rear courtyard and served with fresh fruit, nuts and a baguette. Vestal—a company that makes wristwatches, clothing and luggage—is somehow unofficially associated with Volcom, and they've promoting the show.
Tonight's show is in a huge multi-use entertainment complex at the edge of the village. It houses a bar, rehearsal spaces, an Internet café and a large performance hall where we play. We're pleasantly surprised when the place starts to fill up. By the time we go on, there are several hundred people in the building. This is the first show of the tour where I feel like we have the opportunity to do what we came to do. I have one of those moments like I can't believe I'm really here doing this, playing songs we wrote in a little room in Raleigh half a world away. These people are eating it up, dancing, bellowing "Burds uf AvaLONE!" in thick Provençal accents.
After the show, the spread backstage is ridiculous—walnuts, tangerines, chevre, proscuttio, chorizo, canard, an '03 Rioja, 8-ounce bottles of San Miguel Lager, Irish whiskey, absinthe. The next day, the topic of discussion is which of these made me too sick to keep even a glass of water down. Spoiled fruit? Old meat? A 24-hour flu?
"It was the absinthe," laughs Eric, our sound engineer. "I never touch that shit."
On Sunday, we play in Marseilles, and it's a wash. Maybe 12 people show up. I pass on cheeses, fruits, chicken wings and pasta because I'm too sick. As soon as our set is finished, I go back to the bus and pass out for 13 hours.
Zurich is better—great venue, great crowd. We sell more copies of our album on vinyl here than at any other show, though the club is only a small room called Abart. Situated along the Limmat River in central Zurich, its schedule reads like a who's who of the international club circuit. After the show, the city is all deserted banks and darkened boutiques, mannequins eternally contorted, clocks running at every corner....
It's important to note the difference between touring and traveling. When you're traveling, you can take the time to see the sites, visit museums and landmarks, eat at local cafés. When you're touring, you mostly see the interiors of various rock clubs, which are mostly the same. Most everything else you see is from the window of a moving vehicle during daylight hours. So we're thrilled to have several hours of sightseeing before our show in Cologne, Germany. Alas, a good chunk of our free time goes down the tubes when our cabs take us to the wrong hotel. We have to find our way across the city on foot, luggage in tow.
Cologne was mostly destroyed by American bombs in World War II, save its majestic centerpiece, Cologne Cathedral. There is really nothing in America comparable to this church. Imagine St. Patrick's stacked on top of itself several times, and you'll begin to get the idea. More than 600 years in the making and at one time the tallest structure in the world, the Kölner Dom towers over the landscape. You can almost hear its hushed breath throughout the city. Inside, you can feel the immensity of the enclosure against the sides of your skull. Vast stained glass windows, biblical scenes in intricate detail, wooden sculptures of tormented saints, the shrine of the Magi: It's almost too much to process. I light a candle for my grandfather who, unlike me, was a devout Catholic. I'm not sure what these things are supposed to count for.
Our show is unremarkable but for two things. First, in a happy coincidence, our friends and label mates in Valient Thorr are in town supporting Motorhead (no wonder nobody came to see us), and we have a great time with them. Second, our tour manager gets fired. I think the total absence of competent directions to any of the venues cinched it. Tour managers have a dizzying scope of responsibilities. They set the daily schedule, manage the money, deal with venues and promoters, double-check driving directions. All I know is, our tour seems to run a lot smoother after Dawn gets the boot.
The downside is that Cheetie is elected by consensus among the bands and the tour organizers to take over management responsibilities. She's overqualified for the job, having spent a good chunk of the past 10 years on the road with The Cherry Valence and, before that, working in artist management. Still, it largely defeats the purpose of having a tour manager, which is to allow the bands to focus on music rather than administrative details. This new stress for Cheetie will compromise our cohesion as a band, but there are only two shows left on this leg of the tour. At least we'll get to them on time....
We arrive a little early for our show in Amsterdam. Surprising, as it's almost impossible to find a way with enough clearance for a tour bus. After having to back up and turn that behemoth around four times, we finally find a bridge we can squeeze under.
During the cab ride from our hotel to the club, I get my first glimpse of how different (liberal?) Amsterdam is. Two young Arabs in a black Mercedes with tinted windows pick Scott and me up at the cab stand. We lurch through narrow streets at a horrifying clip, swerving between bicyclists and oncoming cars. Our driver and his colleague are smoking hashish and rocking Tupac with the system yanked. Between huffs of smoke, our driver leans back and yells, "This is my colleague. I train him tonight. You must be high for this. It is the only way to understand the city."
Tonight's show is all about technical mishaps: cords shorting out, amps on the fritz, guitar straps slipping, drums tumbling over. It doesn't matter much. Everyone's cycling high afterward, glad to be finished with the first leg of the tour. We decide to do some late-night sightseeing in the red-light district, but the novelty fades fast. It's just like so many other "party" districts: Bourbon Street, Beale Street, Sixth Street, places where hedonism is the main tourist attraction. That prostitution and some drugs are legal in the district only ratchets up the sleaziness. Imagine a cross between the state fair, an adult bookstore and the parking lot at a Grateful Dead show.
These types of places tend to cultivate an unsavory mix of slack-jawed tourists and jittery hustlers. Craig and I would appear to be part of the former camp, as we are easily lured down a dark alley by a gentleman we ask for directions. Luckily, Cheetie and Paul have enough foresight to realize the almost certain unpleasant outcome of this detour. They call us back to the group.
We spend the next day transitioning from one leg of the tour to the next. We have to drop off our gear just south of Amsterdam, catch a ride down into Belgium to pick up our new van, and then swing back up to reload our gear. That night, we stay in the European equivalent of a Motel 6, The Formula One. Formula One hotel rooms are miniscule, with barely enough room for a sink, a tiny TV and a double bed with a single lofted above. Bathrooms are communal by floor. The rooms are relatively cheap. This is an example of the kind of European efficiency we seem to have no demand for in the States....
Our next show is in Groningen, Netherlands, at the world-famous "Club for the International Pop Underground," The Vera. Established in the early '70s as a squat and artist's collective, The Vera has become a beacon on the European tour circuit. U2, Sonic Youth, The White Stripes, Nirvana and countless others played here before they blew up. The walls of the club are plastered with hundreds of handmade silkscreen posters. Just about every underground movement is represented—punk, new wave, hardcore, speed metal, hip hop, you name it.
Almost as legendary as its roster is the Vera's hospitality. These people know how to treat a band. Not only are we well-fed and housed, we're given more than ample time for a soundcheck. This is the part of the show you're too often rushed through by impatient promoters, lazy engineers or your own tardiness. At a club like Vera, the focus is on staging the absolute best show possible, not selling tickets and beer.
We do have help in the ticket department for this show, though. Vancouver's Black Mountain is a solid yet adventurous quintet just now breaking through to a wider audience. We were introduced to these guys after our show in Vancouver this year. They put us up for a couple of days and later agreed to add us to this show, despite the fact that we have no draw here. We're very grateful and excited to see them play. As a result, we turn in one of our best performances of the entire tour. Black Mountain's set is very tight and very dynamic. Though they throw in a few old favorites, most everything is brand new tonight. Guitarist/ vocalist Steven McBeam even switches over to acoustic guitar at one point for a haunting ballad. This is a gutsy move for a band whose bread and butter is heavy grooves and riffs. You risk killing momentum and alienating the audience. The willingness to take chances is part of what makes a great band. Playing it safe rarely makes for interesting art of any kind. The song is stellar. It will stick in my head for weeks after I'm home, as will the memory of The Vera....
Our next show is in Antwerp, Belgium, but first we have to go back to Amsterdam to pick up our new tour mates—all the way from Tel Aviv, Israel, Monotonix! Rock bands are somewhat of a rarity in Israel, as the environment does not encourage such idle pastimes. Still, like a thorny tree that takes root in the crags, Monotonix has clawed its way into the world circuit. Its approach to the form is rabidly unorthodox.
Monotonix's sound is blues-inflected rock, but Yonotan's guitar style is completely unique. I watch his hands closely almost every night and still can't figure out how he gets the sounds I hear. Ran, the drummer, plays a very minimal kit while standing. He learned to play drums in a military band as part of his mandatory service in the army. His snare rolls make you want to MARCH. It's the singer Ami, though, who really takes the show into the stratosphere. An old-school performer of the first order, there is something distinctly vaudevillian about his antics. He knows how to march right up to the edge of the inappropriate and come off like a gentleman. During the five shows we play together, Ami crawls into trash cans, lights the drum set on fire, and convinces a 60-year-old woman to drink beer out of his shoe. He moves an entire performance—crowd, band and all—into the club's restroom. He hopes to shake crowds out of indolence and drag them into the time of their lives.
His monologues, different each night, mix the absurd with the insightful: "This next song is a metal song. It is called 'No Metal,'" he says. "You see, this is how we are in Israel. We say one thing and do another. We say we are Western country, but then ehhhh ... not so much."
After our show in the Amsterdam suburb of Haarlem, the bartenders take us out to a few late-night spots. By 4 a.m., we've found our way to a disco. End of the line: It's almost deserted.
Anyone with any sense goes home earlier than this, especially on a Wednesday. Still, here I am, out on the dance floor with the Israelis, yelling at the DJ, just doing any old dance that comes to mind. I'm not sure how we got here, or—more still—how I so often find myself in these situations. I guess I have an insatiable (unhealthy?) hunger for all things random, improbable, unexpected and senseless. It's moments like this that keep me in this business. Sure, there's no job security, no benefits and the pay is laughable. But curveballs? You get those by the busload....
The flight home seems almost as long as the entire trip. Like a good tourist, I buy gifts at the duty-free store in Gatwick, but the murderous exchange rate between the British pound and the dollar destroys any savings from tax exemptions. Crossing the Atlantic, we pass through some of the most magnificent cloud formations I've ever seen—rolling hills, towering plateaus, winding valleys.
And then we're home—back to our friends and families, our routines, our jobs, almost without missing a beat. There's always a feeling when you come home after a tour that no time has passed, that you never even left. I guess that's part of the reason I'm always so anxious to go out on the road again. You know, to prove that it's actually real, to pinch myself and not wake up....