Part 2 – Windsor/ Holland / Lafayette / Des Moines / Lawrence / Fayetteville
Windsor, ON – Phog Lounge:
We’re en route to Windsor, Ontario today and it’s storming out. I feel nestled in my cocoon in the backseat listening to chiptune music on the speakers (driver’s choice for this leg). The rain slapping the windshield, occasionally accented by thunder claps falls congruent at times with the uneven seams in the asphalt. The sky is dark and the wind farms and corn fields suddenly look ominous and foreboding. We have a late call time tonight as we are the only band on the bill after a weekly jazz night. We take in the requisite rainbow as a good omen.
We had previously hit Phog Lounge after failing to secure a venue in Detroit. Windsor is a sleepy border town in eye-shot of downtown Motor City. Last Autumn’s show fell on a Tuesday night after their open mic poetry series. Yeah… Listen… I know how that sounds. We were worried too. But it actually turned out to be one of the best stops on the tour. Not only was it very well attended, everyone stayed for our show and spent a good chunk of change on merch. The owner threw us a hefty percentage of the bar and we were invited back right away. This time around we were there on a Sunday night, the day before a holiday. Now, if you’ve recently been in 5th grade American History class, you’ll know that Canadians don’t celebrate Memorial Day. But we were hoping for the best.
We arrived to see a packed venue gearing up for some jazzy jazzness. The bartender informed us that the band would be performing till 11pm, not 10pm as we were told previously over email. Coupled with that, there was an entire small orchestra’s worth of equipment that would need to be moved before our gear could be assembled. Our pay is contingent upon a good crowd, merch sales and a bar percentage. We NEED people to stay for the show. During their two sets, the jazz band doesn’t mention us as the next band and the bartender confides in us that most people will probably clear out. We see the glowing night sky teasing a downpour and we hustle to move our stuff into the back for battle-ready formations. We create Canada’s biggest egress issue near the fire exit and watch as 11 o’clock comes and goes with a muted trumpet still bellowing tired standards from the stage. Typical jazzholes…
Tonight was a stop we knew that we would be using all of our own equipment. There comes a time for a touring band when it’s just easier to use ALL of your equipment, EVERY night. Playing on subpar and over-stressed venue equipment means too many unknown variables. Having a cello in the band means we are always at the whim of whatever house P.A. is on-site. When you add a house bass amp and a skeleton drumkit, it becomes a game of odds. The chances that something will be broken or hit your ear differently are extremely high. Plus, if you’re unloading the entire van, you might as well just bring everything for that peace of mind. This lifestyle is not for the lazy. If you are familiar with venue equipment or another band’s gear, that’s one thing, but from experience, I can honestly say websites are rarely updated with tech specs and you don’t know who spilled beer on what amp or who walked off with what speaker cable last week. Keep your gear consistent and your sound will reward you.
We don’t hit our line-check until 11:30 pm. The bartender shouts that if anyone wanted to stay that there would be a $5 cover charge. We see two tables pound the rest of their beers, stand up and grab their coats to leave. I’m tempted to forgo the rest of the line-check and launch into the first song to try to keep some interest. But that would do us no favors. The fact of the matter is that if someone doesn’t want to pay five bucks to see a band at a venue they are already at, they probably won’t cough up any money for merch. We see some people in venue purgatory by the door waiting for our first song to see if they want to pay. We start off short, sweet and heavy with our cover of “Battle without Honor of Humanity” from Kill Bill: Volume 1. It works and some of the people come back to their seats. It’s a super attentive and engaged crowd. We clean up on merch and payment and pack up to cross back into America.
If border crossing is iffy going into Canada, it’s even more-so coming back in. We are all citizens but heightened security has made scrutiny go up for touring bands You’re usually greeted by some hyper-masculine guards hell-bent on being aggressive and intimidating. We were lucky to find the world’s most relaxed and bored border agent. He asked if we had ‘an extraordinary amount’ of drugs in the vehicle and that if we did, we would have to share with him. He started messing with us asking us to get out of the vehicle and unload every piece of equipment one at a time. As we opened the doors he said “I’m just fucking around, why would I ask you to do that? We’d be here all night.” We gave him some band info and he said he would check us out on YouTube. If we could just schedule him EVERY time we came back through, then this would be a lot less stressful.
That elation quickly dwindled when we arrived at our crash-spot in central Michigan. It was the middle of nowhere. Literally. Nothing. The town of Sumpter, Michigan. We discovered we had accidentally put an extra way-point in the GPS while inputting the address. We had traveled an hour south out of our way. Silent stewing permeated the van after an otherwise awesome night. Fatigue sets in and mistakes happen. All you can do is laugh about it. Our host was gracious enough to wait up till 4 am until we arrived at the right location. He even made us chili and had arcade machines in his living room. Yes… we’re definitely back in America.
Holland, MI – Cusack Music + Mojo Hand FX Shoppe:
A few months back, I was given an endorsement from Cusack Music and Mojo Hand FX. They had put out an APB on their social media sites for bands they should have on their radar. They wanted to know about bands doing interesting things and whom had the work ethic to match. One of our fans that followed their pages linked one of our busking videos and with a few other serendipitous fan sentiments on the same thread, they contacted me. I had been wanting for a LONG time to overhaul my sound. The familiar twinge of shame when someone would come up to me after a YBR? set and then look down at my board-less pedals with an amateur daisy chain connecting them, only to walk away with a wince was all too real. There’s nothing wrong with a simple setup or having BOSS pedals as your primary sound. Those pedals are built like tanks and work really well on a working musician’s budget. They also help test out your sound so you can expand later should you dig the idea but want to explore further. You try their Reverb pedal and if you dig that, you eventually shell out money for the Strymon Big Sky. Cusack, Mojo and I agreed on six pedals that would make sense for both a venue and busking setup for me. Playing in the subway always held the band in this pedal purgatory. The pedals had to have easily accessible 9volt batteries and they had to last awhile. I’m finally ready to shuck that and get more serious about my sound.
On our route from Windsor, ON to Lafayette, IN was about an hour detour to the workshop of Cusack Music and Mojo Hand FX. I would get to see where the pedals were made and they might be able to help me diagnose some sound issues I was dealing with. Mark, one of their pedal gurus and sales guys, was kind enough to take a couple hours out of his holiday and give us the tour and sit down with my board. The initial agreement for the sponsorship entailed demo videos, builds, live steams, etc. But the last thing I wanted to do was to look like a noob while pedaling these pedals. (GROAN). Mark helped me dial in new sounds and find what might work best for the extended range of my 8 string bass. He showed us some machines more than 30 years old that they still use to build these wonderful toys from the ground up. It was super fascinating to a layman like myself. The two engineers with us were having an analog wet dream next to me. I had confirmed my suspicion that this was the right company for me. It’s a small outfit that is hungry and dedicated to quality as well as pushing boundaries and delving into new territory.
On our way out, we were all feeling confident and stopped to get Taco Bell. It was immediately regrettable and we are still reeling from that decision days later. Eat as healthy as you can on the road. Fast food turns to sludge in your gut on long drives. Don’t be tempted by cheap prices and lots of a quantity. Drink water, eat granola bars and realize you don’t have to get snacks every time you stop for gas. And don’t forget to eat your meat or you won’t get any pudding. How can you have any pudding when you don’t eat your meat?
Lafayette, IN – Carnahan Hall:
It’s important to have some familiar shows on tour. The amount of variables of things that can go wrong are countless when traversing through new markets. Having reliable anchor dates along your route can provide the light at the end of some very dark tunnels on the road. These shows act as financially stable nights with a steady fan-base that will hopefully continue to grow, guaranteed free housing and some familiar faces to help boost morale. As your map grows, these dates are few and far between, flanked by uncertainty, flaky promoters and iffy turnouts. There is also something to be said for hitting smaller markets as a rule of thumb. Chicago is only two hours north and through our experiences there we have learned that while it’s definitely imperative to hit big cities to build a following, it’s also extremely thankless. That city is inundated and over-saturated with things to do. The amount of places to perform are immense but that only muddies the waters. By contrast, small towns offer a more pin-pointed trajectory on where to play and who is in charge. There’s less to do so by comparison, your show is now higher on the list of activities.
Carnahan Hall, and more importantly Lafayette, Indiana, has become our home-base in the Midwest. It was first booked on a whim when I couldn’t find anywhere between Cincinnati and Chicago. I was referred to a promoter by the name of Nick that heads the Doom Room that exclusively throws very, very heavy shows. He was a bit hesitant since our band logo was easily readable on a t-shirt (terrible black metal joke) but he said yes. Long story short, it turned out to be the best night on tour for us. We played tight to a HUGE crowd that had never even heard of us, killed it financially and the Doom Room crew partied with us till sunrise. Since then, we’ve always had a pick of the dates, a place to stay and lots of fun.
Lafayette is a small city in the middle of Purdue University, makeshift meth labs, wind-farms and miles upon kilometers of corn fields. We weren’t stoked about playing there on a Monday night but that’s just sometimes how routing goes. We’d be delving into extremely unfamiliar terrain for the entire rest of the tour. It was the last bastion of marked territory for us. We needed a great show to bust a proverbial bottle of champagne off our ass before crossing into no man’s land. Compound that with the fact that it was on Memorial Day and this state loves their finger-filleting fireworks and liquid poop inducing BBQ. Our favorite venue had also changed locations to the far-side of town in a strip-mall. The previous location was smaller but it was near the only foot traffic the town could boast along the main drag. The show was now only accessible by vehicle.
Overall, it was a lower turnout than we had hoped but still a good show with some stellar fucking bands from nearby Fort Wayne. To have zero locals on the bill and to still have a solid Monday night crowd out just to see a cheap metal show is astonishing to me as a New Yorker. It was rad to see a metal show with bassists who were playing their faces off. The band Dormant, only a band for less than a year and armed with just 4 sets of stickers for merch, played some sick instrumental music. Seriously, they had no business being as good as they were. I always appreciate a bass player that colors outside the lines, especially in heavier music when bassists are usually relegated to drone notes, roots and sludge timbre. There were lots of musicians in these crowds and I fielded a lot of questions about my custom bass as well as my new pedal board. I like nerding out with people about gear because in all honesty, I’m still new to it myself. I’m still having some issues with some of my pedals acting up and giving a nasty hiss in certain monitors. I am afraid that a rewiring is imminent when we have a few spare hours. We have two electronically-sound engineers on the road with us so there is no reason not to. The next couple days are monster drives into choppy waters. We aren’t confident on the next few shows so I need to make sure we are solid on our sound. Because the rest is anyone’s guess.
Des Moines, IO – Vaudeville Mews:
We had three large drives on this tour: Arkansas to Texas, Virginia to NYC and today’s Indiana to Iowa. With scheduled gas stops and pee breaks, we were looking at seven hours in the van. Typically, you don’t want to do more than six hours a day driving. I understand that stops are sometimes a lot longer than that. But if you can help it, don’t schedule overnight drives or long stretches that really strain your vehicles. We have three band members total and two extra sets of hands on deck. Chaney is our co-driver, merch girl, front of house manager, van-Tetris-guru and lighting director. Her boyfriend Mike is our other co-driver, sound guy, photographer, roadie and all around Macgyver. The band does all the driving on small tours but for these monster routes, it’s important that we spend the extra money for help. Yes, we could save money but it’s also extremely unsafe for us to perform and keep touring band hours (typically from 8 am – 3 am every day) and then operate a vehicle 5k+ miles. Extra equipment, more shows, bigger venues… all of that means extra jobs for everyone: We run three cameras on each show, multi-track recording, lighting shows, stage banners, involved merch setups and a precision based set-up and strike of our equipment. If a show bombs, then at least you might get some good content out of it. If nothing else, treating it like your full-time job as well as your passion builds a sense of camaraderie and teamwork to act and carry your band as a well-oiled machine.
From the get-go, this Iowa booking was problematic. Of the three dozen bands I contacted, only two agreed to the show and one of them bailed a few weeks later. The venue didn’t seem too concerned and said a two band bill would be okay. The venue was very legit and that only made me more worried we wouldn’t be able to fill it out. You hear horror stories about touring where the amount of hours is equal to the number of people you end up playing for. Well… SPOILER ALERT… That’s what happened.
The long, boring, seven-hour drive resulted in us playing to seven people. The local band was a great trio of females playing experimental music. But, we were told this was typical for a weekday show in Des Moines. No one seemed that put off by it. But inside, I was jumping out of my skin. The only solace is that place is a ghost town at night. At least NO ONE was around as opposed to people being prevalent but just not at our show. We ended up bringing the bulk of the paying people. Even after a PR campaign, press releases sent to local radio and blogs sponsored posts and contacting a local street team, it was still a wash. This shit never gets easier. Our fans that had come from a couple states away ended up buying over $100 in merch. That’s a lifesaver because at the end of the night the venue told us that there wasn’t enough to pay the bartender or sound guy, let alone the bands. I won’t wax philosophic here or complain about shoulda-coulda-woulda’s… I take responsibility for what happened. It’s our first time there and I should have pushed for a smaller venue or dropped from the bill two months ago. Each venue is different in their standards and practices. Sometimes cutting your losses is the right decision. But the venue seemed to want the show regardless so we powered through and did our damnedest. The few people there loved it but as you might have surmised, I’m a perfectionist.
Sometimes, playing to an empty room can be the best shows. And it might seem like a rite of passage that you can laugh off at the end of the night. But as a professional unit, I’m worried about too many of them in a row. It’s bad for morale and terrible for a first impression in new places. These aren’t small DIY spaces or open mics. These are legit venues that remember and log ticket sales for future reference. It’s embarrassing to perform to so few people as a career band. But… when it DOES happen, and it will, you play your ass off. You acknowledge it and you don’t be a sour asshole about it. You make a joke about it and play like there are 107 people in the room instead. The few people in that room will most likely be lifelong fans because you gave them a super intimate show. It’s also nice knowing that going by sheer statistics and math, you’re probably the best bass player in that room for that night. So there’s something, right?
Lawrence, KS – The Bottleneck:
School nights are killers, no matter what time of year it is. On tour, you’ll hear the same song and dance after a poorly attended weekday show. “You guys should come back on a weekend; it would be absolutely packed.” Thanks, GUY… But, we can’t just hang out in Wichita, Kansas from Monday to Thursday and then exclusively play weekend shows on tour. Conversely, when it’s a low turnout on a weekend, you’ll hear the same know-it-all say “There’s too much going on this weekend. If you played here on a Tuesday, everyone would come out.” I believe the sentiment is well-intentioned but just take it with a grain of salt. Sometimes, there’s no method to the madness. You will still fall flat periodically. It’s just inevitable.
For instance, after a particularly TERRIBLE southern tour two years back, when we had a string of at least twelve shows go terribly, I found myself near tears at the end of the dismally attended night. We were in Kentucky and playing with a very seasoned headlining band that had been doing for 14 years what we had been only recently started doing. I sat at the end of an empty bar after packing up and in an obvious moment of weakness, I asked the lead singer if nights like this got any easier. She grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye and said “Easier? No. Fewer? Yes.” And in that instant, that was all I needed: someone to say that we were on the right trajectory and that this is just the grind.
Iowa was rough to deal with but after a solid start to the tour, we knew this would happen eventually. Hitting the wall so hard is never pleasant though. We crashed with a friend’s mom (whom we had never met and didn’t see for the entirety of our stay there). It was a beautiful day after the metaphorical storm had passed. We relaxed and enjoyed the morning with a beautiful view. We had an area to throw Frisbee and juggle. Just the idea of a backyard is foreign to us as urbanites. We needed it. The road ahead was just as unsure as last night and now that the tight veneer was cracked; we felt vulnerable. If Vaudeville Mews was one of the more high capacity venues on the docket, then the Bottleneck in Lawrence was definitely the most prestigious. Boasting an intimidating alumni roster and large open room feel, it was starting to feel like deja vu.
No matter what the crowd is looking like, it’s important to leave yourself enough time to run through pre-show rituals: finger exercises, breathing techniques, warming up, under-water basket-weaving… whatever. Don’t get inside your head if there are hundreds of people in the crowd, or more likely, only one. As bass players, it’s our job to keep the foundation. Depending on backline, we have decidedly less to put together than the drummer. If you are using your own rig, make sure the knobs are where they are supposed to be. You might be too frazzled or exhausted during a quick line-check to make sure nothing was shifted in transit. Each room will also sound different varying on acoustics, equipment and overall amount of bodies in front of you. You’ll have to tweak your sound to the venue as it won’t work the other way around. A large cap room like the Bottleneck will have higher caliber equipment to push sound so you might be able to dial it back on stage and let the monitors do the heavy lifting. Bigger stages hopefully mean different monitor mixes, but not always. We’ve played rooms for up to 6,000 people with assloads of expensive equipment. But none of that matters if you’re ten feet from your drummer and you can’t hear his kick drum. Bass sound is so subjective and usually entirely depends on the player. So, while your guitarist is noodling during a soundcheck and playing the intro to YYZ, take the time to make sure your sound is as close to how you need it as possible while still servicing the sound of the room.
The night picked up and a slew of people trickled in and partied pretty hard for a Wednesday. We were the only unknown band but after some ribbing to the audience about crowding the stage and a mental setlist of high-energy songs, we had them. The banter was good, we played tight and the first band left their excessive amount of fog machines for us to use. We normally don’t go down that road but when the foot-switch is literally right near all of our pedals, why the FUCK NOT? It was a great mix of bands and they were all super supportive. Unfortunately, we got boned on the door deal. Because of the capacity and amount of staff, four bands were left with $80 to split. Thankfully, and graciously, the other bands abstained payment and gave it to us. This was also one of two stops on the tour that we couldn’t find a place to crash. We had to get a hotel at 2 am a few miles from the venue. Hello and goodbye to that door-money. We had a crash-offer about an hour East but we would have had to get up at 7 am to leave when the host had to bounce for work. Taking gas into account, next day’s itinerary and how exhausted we were, it was the right call to bite the bullet and crash five people into one hotel room. Hey, at least there was free HBO.
Fayetteville, AR – Stage 18:
It’s delicate dance of balance when booking in cities and states you’ve never been. You want to come off as professional and seasoned but without all the cynicism and arrogance that is sometimes a nasty side-effect of experience. Don’t presume to know how another venue or promoter operates. We’ve had instances where it looks like someone is a complete ass-clown about show logistics and then we see it come together beautifully. Very few markets operate on the same model as large cities. “When in Rome” applies to more than a few allegories for touring. But the flip-side of that coin, and I can’t stress it enough, is that if being polite and open to new ideas is essential, then being assertive and not compromising your sound is also way up there.
Fayetteville was booked because we needed a midway point between Kansas and Texas. My friend’s band “The One-Ups” resides in NW Arkansas so we set up a tentative date back in January. Fast forward a few months and they have to drop off because one of them is getting married. Yeah… I know… TERRIBLE excuse. So, we were on our own for this show, scheduled to play after a monthly free art show. The booker said meeting our guarantee wasn’t going to be a problem. We arrived at the venue three hours before showtime after the art installations were up. The sound-guy, who was the nicest guy on planet earth, insisted that we don’t soundcheck until twenty minutes before we were scheduled to help ‘keep people there’. I felt hesitant about this because I know how annoying a soundcheck is to listen to. But I relented and set up and went off to get some Thai food.
The venue had filled up quite nicely by the time we got back but it was still a full 90 minutes before we were scheduled to play. The room was small and the amount of art to look at was not that expansive. They had told us that we couldn’t play during the art show because of the multi-media art that was being displayed. Okay… fine… but… do you want a good show or not? The room dwindled to about 40 people, milling around and drinking. We got up to soundcheck and just as I feared, people started leaving. Some because of hearing a snare mic check for a minute straight is not fun. Others left because they had already been there for over two hours. Like in Windsor, my first instinct is to just PLAY and worry about the sound later. But that’s bullshit and amateur. So don’t do it. To add insult to injury, they gave an announcement before our first song that if anyone wanted to stay, they would now have to pay a cover charge. This shit again… And the mass exodus took place until there were seven people guilted into paying and staying. For whatever reason, the sound wasn’t good on stage and the low energy in the room affected us immensely. We put on the worst show of the tour so far in one of the nicer venues we have played. The people that stayed for the show fell in love and bought merch and hung out with us for awhile. We got 100% of the door but you can do the math on that one. It was decidedly lower than we were told it would be.
Before the show, I had asked around about any DIY spaces hoping to jump on a later bill. There was one a few blocks away but the dockett was full. Mike had a friend that was the GM of a bar downtown that said we could busk outside to try to make up for the poor reception and pay at our original location. I had a huge internal dilemma. We had a hell of a haul the next day and we were exhausted and dejected. We could have hung out, called it early and gotten a decent night of sleep. My cellist was experiencing the signs of fatigue from repetition from his first major tour. I wanted a morale boost and took a gamble. We packed up quickly and headed to the other bar to get the lay of the land. While parking, we saw a good-sized crowd of people outside. With a smidgen of hope, we walked into only to be greeted by the most bro-tastic and obnoxious bar crowd I’ve encountered since being in college. I should also mention that Fayetteville, Arkansas is home to the annual shareholders meeting taking place that week for Wal-Mart, that has its headquarters in nearby Bentonville. So that means about 50k extra people from all over the world hanging out in this small town. Sounds great, right? Well… it’s not. We called an audible and cut our losses. Busking outside would have been a shit-show and playing inside would have meant competing with three different sporting events being televised to some very drunk, hostile people. I didn’t speak up when I should have at Stage 18 but I sure as hell did at the Irish Pub. I thanked the GM for the offer but politely declined. We had a powwow outside before heading to the crash space and I apologized for not taking charge. We set up a game-plan for all the future shows where our front-of-house manager would be the asshole in charge if we needed it so the band could be one step removed.
It was a bummer of a night but I got to cuddle with a dog while I slept. I miss my own dog. He would have paid the cover charge to see our band play if he wasn’t always unemployed.Photos by Mike Peloquin + Lauren Hedges