On the Road (Again) with Peat Rains from You Bred Raptors?: Part 3
Day 11 – Austin, Texas – Kick Butt Cafe
We wanted to be done with Denton, TX after such a letdown of a night. The people there were amazing and the town itself, resembling a modern version of Deadwood with its symmetrical storefronts and O.K. Corral town square, wasn’t a wasted destination by any stretch. But we had to eat a perfectly good weekend night on tour, and that was a lot to swallow. A few days prior, without a solid place to crash, KC suggested we trudge on after the show straight to Austin. There, we would have a great place to kick up our spurs and hang our ten-gallon hats on for the last half-day off for the rest of the tour. It would be a three to four-hour drive and our host was willing to wait up for us to let us in. It was a good call and the band agreed. The weather was getting oppressively hotter as we ventured closer to the equator. Cracking a window in the car for even a small amount of time to air out everyone’s well-worn socks and stratosphere of coffee and breakfast sandwiches just enveloped the car in a sweaty bear-hug of vapor.
Our host, Ryan, and I had met at a video game convention some years ago that the band had played. He had stayed in touch and helped us with some graphic design when I got endorsed by MojoHand FX and Cusack Music. Apparently, people use something called “Photoshop” now; and my sick Microsoft Paint skills are now archaic and unnecessary in today’s workforce. Ryan helped with that. He also put us up two years ago, bought a keg, and threw us an afterparty. The only raucous soiree this time would be a welcomed place to crash for two nights before the longest four day stretch on tour. Each day would be 7+ hours of driving and we need our beauty sleep, God Damnit!
We arrived from Denton past 3 am and briefly hung out before collapsing. I would be sharing Ryan’s bed, KC got the insanely nap-inducing couch, and Tara got a queen-sized air mattress. We are a band made up of the Princesses and the Pea, I tell ya. The next day, we did absolutely fuck-all before the show. We only went outside long enough to say ‘nope’ at the unbridled, evil Sun God before retreating. Ryan had one of those washer and dryer combos INSIDE his apartment. That’s still one of the wonders of the world to witness as New Yorkers. But, did we do laundry? You bet your ass we didn’t. It was halfway through the tour and we weren’t giving up yet. We did have one task for the day; we had to somehow get rid of this huge wad of cash before entering Mexico. We had heard from too many bands and read too many trip advisories that said to not cross the border with large sums of physical money. It was Saturday and no banks were open for a cashier’s check. I racked my brain to remember every episode of The Wire that involved money laundering and came up short. Finally, in a huge testament of faith, we entrusted Ryan with a huge hunk of clams to deposit and Venmo it to us later. As of this writing, he has not blown the money on a trampoline or multilevel marketing scheme.
Ryan is also an accomplished artist (IG: @PixelArtPaintings) We were stoked to see a tour present waiting for us upon arrival. He had made three custom masks for the band in honor of our second time in Austin. This dude gets us.
We arrived to soundcheck right on time, as usual. Usually, on tour, we offer to backline or share equipment to help the transitions go smoother and declutter the stage area of equipment not in use. We set up and sound checked and the other bands were still not there. One band, Gimmick!, filtered in. We said, “Hey, you cool using our drums and bass equipment?” And they were like “Fuck yes, less for me to carry in”, like awesome people. We ended up hanging out with them most of the night. Just a quick note about professionalism. On this tour and previous tours, we have dealt with all kinds of tomfoolery; Bands showing up four hours late to soundcheck, then demanding better set placement or longer set time, or insisting on using their own equipment, seemingly just to be difficult. Look, I don’t care if you want to use your own gear. We do too. We trust the sound and don’t want to be reliant on other people’s stuff. But, get there on time and let the other bands know prior. I gave up trying to be stage manager for the night. It’s cool. I’ll just go fuck myself. The crowd was decent, the sound guy remembered us from last time and the rest of the venue staff were also A-Fucking-Plus. We performed well, but I was obviously a bit elsewhere mentally thinking about the excursion tomorrow. KC and Tara have been killing it the entire tour and I couldn’t have been more proud.
Ryan bought us some late-night food because in all of our laziness, forgot to eat dinner. We chomped on local, hole-in-the-wall, authentic, Italian delicacy called Domino’s Pizza till 3 am. We had to be up at 7 am for the long trek across the border. The reality of the situation crept in on me as I set my alarm for a three-hour nap. Are we really prepared to do this without any proficiency in Spanish? We are arriving without work visas and the current tension between our two respective countries was nothing to sneeze at. My brain stopped fighting itself soon after as exhaustion set in. There’s no turning back now. The border is five hours away and the farthest pivot point for this band lies on the other side of Texas. Hell and high water have come.
Day 12 – Monterrey, Mexico – Border Crossing + Salon Morelos
You find a lot of useless talents being a full-time musician. Apparently, we become amateur power-lifters carrying equipment, small-time bookkeepers handling finances and our own travel agents while routing tours. I’ve become a sexier Carmen Sandiego with my geography skills. I can look at a map between any two points in North America and can tell you within an hour how long it might take to travel there by 15 passenger van or by strapping a saddle to an ostrich. I’m really hoping this might be the Final Jeopardy question someday. But, probably not. Two years ago, while touring Texas, I casually checked to see how far we were from the border while playing a show in Austin. I was surprised it was an easy day’s drive. There planted the seed for us that we should venture further south the next chance we could get.
It’s crazy to think that there is an entire country so close at which we haven’t performed. I started doing research on where might be the best to put on a show. I was under no illusion here; we would be making no money, and it would be a hell of a haul there and back. By happenstance, a fan of ours that lived in Mexico City was to be traveling to NYC and needed help booking a show. I threw out the idea of trading shows. He lived in Mexico City, which would be extremely far out of our way and was not feasible on this run, but he did have a contact in Monterrey, Mexico, about two hours south of the Texas border. His contact was solid, but this show was by far the most logistically difficult to nail down. My 8th grade Spanish was no match for Mexican slang. It became a crazy game of bilingual telephone. We had Tohnee that initially made the introduction, Fony that owned the club we would be playing, Jonas that was doing all the graphic design and promo for the show, Daniel that was tasked with audio for the night, and Joaquin whom we had been scheduled to stay with after the gig. Everyone used Whatsapp and varying degrees of English were present (all better than my Spanish, mind you). It was easier for them to speak over voice memos. A few apps later, Google Translate and LOTS of consulting with Tohnee, who was fluent, we had a plan. The show would be free on a Sunday, which isn’t ideal, but everyone was excited to have us.
The band had to embark from Austin by 730am for the allotted 10-hour journey of traveling and some flexible time for border crossing. Our due diligence of checking travel advisories and researching other bands that have crossed into Mexico left us with even more questions. Outside advice was everything from “You’re white, you’ll be fine” to “bring enough money to bribe the Mexican Federales to get your gear back.” We wanted to be aware of the rising tensions between the U.S. and Mexico while still being respectful of their customs and laws. An international incident isn’t exactly a highlight on our band résumé that we wanted. None of us spoke Spanish, even conversationally. I wanted to balance out the scare tactics of what we had read, subversive racism and xenophobia of sedentary people, and over-caution of travel with practical advice as musicians carrying expensive equipment into another country. The common denominator for traveling was steady though; for the two hours after crossing in Laredo Texas (and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico), do NOT stop; Fill up on gas beforehand and just drive straight on one highway. Do not get off said highway because no one will be there to help you.
We had secured an immigration letter from the venue but were told to only show this if border guards asked for it specifically. Almost every time crossing into Canada means us getting pulled into Secondary Inspection and having to check our paperwork. In hindsight, this was so much easier because everyone at least spoke English. We weren’t sure if that would be the case here.
The line to get into Mexico was substantially shorter than into the United States. The heat was beating down on us and the Sonic Food in our bellies rumbled with a bit of nervous tension. For the biggest crossing in Texas, the border itself was small. Over a bridge and small river that you could easily traverse or throw a boomerang over, the culture shock was palpable. The line was quick and we slowly crossed over the archaic bridge. The weight of our van set off an alarm, and we were signaled to a small carport. Our passports and papers ready, we rolled down the window. The Mexican border guards, either by design or intimidation tactics, did not speak any English. They were outfitted with dark blue coveralls and guns, enough to scare even the most American Americans. They spoke to us in Spanish and we said we didn’t understand. This answer didn’t faze them. We extrapolated enough words to understand that they wanted us to open the trunk. Tara was in the driver’s seat and popped it open. Luckily, nothing fell out (always a possibility in transit, even with the best Tetrising). They shuffled some things from the back, from the sound and placement, I surmised it was our olden-style merch box. They opened it, muttered something in Spanish that sounded like “musician”, and quickly packed it up. They waved us on through with the shadow of a smile. It took all of three minutes. I had a glimmer of hope that this was going to be a good night.
That glimmer subsided when entering Nuevo Laredo. Of all the times touring in Canada, I never felt unsafe, or even that I was too far from home. But make no mistake, when you are in Mexico, you are in another country. The contrast is stark and the juxtaposition is jarring. We were told, above all, this is the area you do not stop. It is somewhat controlled by the Mexican Cartel, and robbery and kidnapping are real threats. I didn’t want us to be the white-privileged Americans scared to see poverty or a different cultural climate. We are from New York City and have been traveling enough to see all walks of life. We love the nomadic spirit but also wanted to be smart and not pompous or over-confident about our ability to traverse unknown territory. We followed the GPS without any music on, being mindful of our surroundings. The roads were winding, sometimes stopping abruptly without any warning. At one point, an SUV pulled in front of us from the right side, blocking us in. It was a dark, ominous vehicle without any license plate. The driver peered out the window at us and muttered something. He slowly crept in front of us before making a full-on U-turn on the highway to the other side, separated by intermittent concrete barriers. We didn’t process what this interaction meant but breathed easier to leave this purgatory behind us. Ahead of us, we could see the mountains that would be our companions for the next few hours. Flanking us on both sides were Joshua Tree deserts and a long stretch of brutal highway. The number of truck-yards, both small to industrial size operations was staggering. Shipping in and out of this country funneled into a small hour-glass opening that we had just penetrated. Our van slipped from miles to kilometers per hour on the dashboard. Pickup trucks with Federales standing and straddling roll-bars while holding assault rifles zipped by us. I was reminded of the SWAT and riot cops stationed in NYC hubs and feeling just as uneasy. They were both a show of force, but I’m not sure who it was designed to flex to.
About a half-hour after the border, we see what looks like a roadblock with guards stationed. It appeared to be a toll but turned out to be a way to siphon and slow traffic. I was nervous because our border crossing was just a little too smooth and compounded with that; we didn’t have any place to stop to exchange USD for Mexican Pesos. Five minutes later, my heart skipped a beat as we came to an actual toll. The signs were in Spanish only and nowhere posted indicated they accepted American currency. We roll up to the window with our EZ Pass, as useless as an unscented dash ornament. He spoke thick Spanish and we offer what we had in equivalency, but it might as well have been Monopoly money. The toll booth operator suddenly breaks the language barrier and says that we have to go find an ATM and that we can leave our cell phones as collateral. I say no, universal speak for “NO”. He said our vehicle would have to stay there. They put cones ahead and behind us, and now we have stopped traffic. I elect myself to get out. This was my idea and now my responsibility. There is a small convenience store in the middle of this arid tundra. For the first time, I feel the sun beat down on me in Mexico. The air smells different and I’m determined to be international in this transaction. The store, the only one I’ve seen in a while, is bustling. I walk inside and my tension quickly multiplies. There is no ATM. I ask someone that works there, pulling out words for ‘money’ and ‘bank’ out of my archives. She points to the clerk. I wait in line, knowing what is in store for me. The clerk has no idea what I’m saying, even as I’m pitifully slowly saying fewer words each time. They do not do cash-back for a debit purchase. I walk out defeated and utterly clueless about how to proceed. There is Mexican police on a break. I explain my issue and they tell me to go inside and use the ATM. I say there isn’t one and they laugh a tired laugh.
It was the first time that I felt that this might have been a mistake. I see our vehicle in the distance blocked off in the lane, two vague figures in the front seat. I call Tara and tell her the situation. The phone is breaking up and then cuts off completely. I ask a few random customers if anyone speaks English. I have become that person that you ignore because you assume they are begging for pocket change. I had to find 260 pesos (about $13.50 USD). There is an abandoned building next to the ‘convenience’ store and a group of men hanging out front. I thought of how this looked and how often this must happen. I worried that the scam of sending someone to this location without an ATM has to happen daily and felt unprepared and completely vulnerable. A man approached me and the sweet sound of English came out of his mouth. He was fluent and his hold on the language was the best we had heard since entering the country. He asked if I needed Mexican Pesos. I was hesitant, but I said yes. He said he could exchange it for me. I looked around, seeing no other option, the Mexican police gone and probably not my first line of defense anyway. I told him to hang on and walked to our van. I am sweating, frazzled and not handling this well at all. I dump my phone, my wallet, and all my cash, save a $20 bill in the backseat. If I’m getting robbed, it’s going to be for a manageable amount of money. I walk up to the man who is decked out in flannel and a rancher’s hat. He slowly reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. He then says “It’s about 18 pesos for a dollar, though it changes daily. I can look it up if you want”, as he pulls up a calculator app and finds the exact amount to exchange, without the pesky rate a bank would give you. I say it’s fine as a tidal wave of relief washes over me. My twenty dollars equals about 400 pesos and we only need 260. He asks if I have anything smaller. I say no and immediately feeling in awe of his generosity and shame of my ignorance, I tell him to just keep the difference. He gives me the pesos and extends his hand. His name is Fernand and just so happened to be stopping through and saw me. I told him about the band and he took our info down on his phone. He has a son in Monterrey whom he said he would message about going to our show. Had he not been there, I would still be in the parking lot most likely. He wished us luck on tour and walked away. We pay the toll and they let us through.
The next two hours were just a straight shot. The mountain ranges grew larger and you could scope insane distances in either direction. We avoided large potholes and saw careening trucks pass us at lightning speed. We didn’t see a gas station or police for the duration of that stretch. As Monterrey grew closer, so did the city life. It seemed like the entirety of the population used the bus system. It was a Sunday and our expedition was coming to an end. A few days earlier, I had been told by Joaquin that his place, our accommodations for the night, didn’t actually have any furniture. He had recently moved from Guadalajara and his furnishings hadn’t arrived yet. Fortunately for us, the resorts are very cheap in Mexico. I got us a hotel at the base of the mountains. The sight was breathtaking. But, I’m a dumb gringo and check-in to the hotel was a calamity of errors; I got lost in the hotel, accidentally set off the fire alarm going through the wrong exit, and we couldn’t figure out how to get out of the parking garage. So, there… We fulfilled our portion of the typical American traveling abroad checklist. All that was missing was us eating a hot dog and listening to terrible country music while it all went down.
The show was at Salon Morelos, a smaller stage to the larger Cafe Iguana. There was a DJ on when we arrived. The place was packed. I found Daniel and he said we could park right out front. It was barely a street, with no other cars present. I wanted to make sure so I asked again. He said it was fine. I could have kissed him. That’s amazing to be able to park literally right outside and be assured nothing would happen to your chariot. We loaded in and proceeded to set up behind the DJ as he finished up. We heard the bar dancing and singing along to American songs. It was a surreal experience. Sitting in the back of the tour van the last few days, I had memorized about six or seven phrases in Spanish that I would say between songs. I wanted to be able to interact with this crowd, despite the language barrier. I looked up the cadence and accent I was supposed to be speaking. I was NAILING it saying it to myself. Simple things like where we are from, what the next song was called, thanking people for coming out on a Sunday, yadda yadda yadda. Well, I totally Eminem’d out and choked on the first song. Seeing that many people, some of whom had known our music, in a country I had never been to, I just forgot how to say everything except “Gracias” over and over again. I cared but the crowd didn’t. They loved it despite me mangling my best efforts to converse. We had some technical issues with one of my pedals but barreled through and adapted. The music pierced through any cultural differences and brought us together. It was an outdoor stage and the heat was unbearably hot. Our masks dripped with sweat and our vests stuck to our clammy bodies. But it was spectacular and by far the best night of the tour.
After the set, a swarm of people came up to check out our merch. Tara had translated prices for us and we made a few sales. Lots of new fans wanted pictures with us. It was rare for that to happen in America but supposedly common in Mexico. The rest of the night was a blur. We were invited out by Joaquin and some die-hard new fans. I was able to experience authentic Mexican tacos, karaoke, and watched the sunrise over the mountains of Monterrey. I slept about an hour before packing up to head back to the states.
Day 13 – Houston, Texas – Notsuoh
The trip back across the border was less harrowing but definitely more annoying. Signs posted close to the border were all in Spanish and before we knew it, we were in the express lane. Think a FastPass line at Disney or PreCheck at the airport for the airport. The border agent spoke a little English and told us we had to turn back around (three-point turn on a small bridge) and get back in line. So, here we are, crossing into Mexico… again. We were once again pulled into secondary and questioned. We all thought that THIS would be the moment that we get pinched because the first time was just a little too easy. Luckily, they did a similar job of rifling through our gear and closing the trunk upon realizing we were poor-ass minstrels. They instructed us how to get in the proper line and we had to do a crazy figure-eight around the whole tiny village. Over an hour and lots of idling gas later, we were welcomed back into Texas without too much hassle. We had spent a total of 12 hours in Mexico, but the effects were there all the same. We drove through Southeast Texas around Corpus Christie along the coast toward Houston. Thirty miles later, we arrived at an impromptu checkpoint set up by ICE checking for illegal crossings. The desert on both sides was punishing. Wherever your politics lie, to put yourself in the shoes of someone traversing this landscape with a coyote is unfathomable and scary.
This was our second time in Houston, and at the same venue. Armed with a kitschy and derelict aesthetic, Notsuoh perfectly fits our style. The owner vaguely remembered us and offered us a place to crash upstairs, where he lives. It was less of an apartment and more of a prop department for a movie studio. The warehouse was enormous and boasted decade’s worth of art, mannequins, industrial equipment, and sky-high ceilings. The only catch is that in the August heat, the temperature was bordering on 90 degrees. He then offered us the option of crashing at the venue, on the various couches by the bar. This is definitely the adventure we signed up for. We chose this option as the temperature would stay constant and we could complete our lifelong goal of sleeping at a bar on purpose.
One of the bands had bailed on the evening a day before our show. We took the opportunity to choose our time-slot accordingly and backline our gear. The booker was told that another band would be joining us, but he knew nothing about them. A couple of hours later, a group of teenagers saunters in with guitars and drums. And when I say guitars and drums, I mean just that… no cases, no protection… just raw-dogging it. They strolled in with wide eyes and a sense of excitement. I introduced myself and they seemed genuinely stoked to be asked to play. They informed me it was their 4th show and that they were all ‘almost 18 years old’. They had also mentioned that their last show was the first time they were paid. A paltry $26 between the four of them. I chuckled to myself and then got very sad at the realization that this is STILL happening to us and other bands at all levels. They were proud of that $26 and that gave me hope for their band. Hell, that is more than we got when we played Kansas a week prior. For love of the game, and all that.
We played one of the tightest sets on the whole tour and had the crowd completely with us. Before each set, or at least after the first song, I will engage the crowd and encourage them to stand up and head to the front. It’s a huge difference to play for a crowd ready and able to move then to a seated, lethargic group. I tried that here and it worked after some initial shyness. People are followers and want to be entertained. So, you have to at least try to get them off their asses. It’s tough to compete with comfy couches and even uncomfortable chairs. Some nights, we are on with our banter as much as with our music. Other shows can feel like pulling teeth to get any kind of interaction. I was glad that the band was in such a groove and working so well together.
The last band got up and put on an entertaining show, despite their age and freshness to the scene. They were a fun, sloppy, punk band. I was in the same band around their age. I couldn’t help but feel like the unsolicited older brother in all this. I wanted to go back to that age and tell myself so many things about this business, about relationships, or about how Game of Thrones would totally shit the bed in their final two seasons. After their set, I showed them our merch and gave them some tips on how to improve theirs. Then I pleaded with them to get some cases for their guitar; Treat your gear with respect and it will do so in kind. Part of me felt like the out-of-touch, ‘hey there, fellow kids’ substitute teacher that thinks they are still cool but is woefully lame and pathetically still trying to be relevant. The other part of me hopes all this experience I have gained will be useful to someone at some point. Don’t make the same mistakes, ya youngin’s; Don’t do pay-to-play shows, a Soundcloud page is not sufficient as an Electronic Press Kit, demand a parking spot in your tour rider, always ask for food or buyouts on tour, don’t skimp on recording properly, and for the love of all that is holy, don’t fart in the green room.
We helped close down the bar by cleaning up and clearing out the patio tables. The bartender was a firecracker named Dale. She was a whip-smart, sarcastic lady that had just struck 70 years young. That girl could dish it out. She regaled us with tales of Houston, working there for over 30 years, and how she was integral in letting us crash her normal, Dixieland Music Mondays. She told us what it was like to be married to the same woman for 40 years, and read our palms in between bouts of hurling hilarious insults at us. She would regularly leave her post to come hang out with us while we played chess, and tell us her war stories, telling patrons to get their own drinks. She loved our music and for someone that talked even more shit than I do, that was high praise. The decor of the place was all over the map, with antique and archaic lamps hanging from all directions, rustic art, and enough plants to rival the real Jurassic Park. Come bedtime, no one could figure out how to actually turn out all of these lights since they were all on different circuits. Fuck it, we were exhausted and crashed seamlessly, each on our own couch, next to the stage, with an abundance of makeshift night-lights guiding us in dreamland.
Day 14 – New Orleans, Louisiana – Circle Bar
Nothing had felt as hot as some of these gas-up stops along this stretch of our campaign. The swampy, muggy humidity just blanketed us as soon as we exited the van. The asphalt below our feet felt malleable, and our bodies’ ability to acclimate was paralyzed by the extreme pendulum swings in temperature. It was about a six-hour stretch to NOLA today. At one of the many rest stops we visited, I stepped in what might have been the saddest convenience store casino this side of Arkansas. Armed with one security person and a bored-looking employee behind a barred teller window, these little pop-up casinos boasted indoor smoking, slot machines, and lots of alligator-themed decor. I tried and gloriously failed at a game of video poker (I think?). I just kind of pressed buttons until I was told I was a loser. Pshh, like I need a dollar to tell me that.
Our last time in New Orleans was a bit of a clusterfuck, but still a fun jaunt, all the same. This time I was happy to have hooked up with one of the other bands from that stint. He was a competent booker, and even more talented hip-hop artist and singer. He secured us at a decent place called Circle Bar in a good area, provided a guarantee, and was professional every step of the way. His thick Louisiana drawl and generally inviting and welcoming attitude made me feel immediately like talking to a long-time friend. The venue, however, provided some challenges being a small room without a dedicated sound engineer. Despite this, the room filled up nicely and there was an abundance of musicians there helping each other make it a successful night.
My pedalboard was holding steady on sound, but Tara’s cello was still cutting in and out at least once every other night. On her board is an LR Baggs DI box with adjustable EQ. The DI takes phantom power and her cello takes an on-board battery for its own internal EQ system. One of these things is fucking up. We hope it’s the DI or the battery. Because if it’s the actual cello, then that’s an issue. This band has eight-string bass and electric cello, two instruments not easily replaceable. My bass is custom made, one of a kind, and took fourteen months to build. If either of these were confiscated at the border, stolen, lost, abducted by aliens… we would be done-fucked. If this cello dies, we MIGHT be able to find an acoustic with an expensive pickup attachment, but they play and sound different. If my bass goes, I MIGHT be able to find a six or maybe even seven-string bass to tweak to my tuning and specifications. But, neither is likely, comparable or cheap alternatives. Maybe we could just shave the sides of our head and become a DJ trio instead. We are hoping her cello and my board makes it to the end of the tour so we can regroup and diagnose properly. Famous last words, right?
We had to borrow one of the other band’s amps for Tara to run sound through. The PA was just not strong enough for cello, and without monitors, it was also impossible for her to play properly. The amp worked out great after some dialing in settings we are used to. That also means no phantom power to her DI so she sometimes just bypasses her DI altogether in those cases. There weren’t any major hiccups during our set. The red lighting of the place matched our vests and Tara’s skirt perfectly. The other bands played awesomely and the crowd was rather large for a Tuesday night. Our guarantee was met for the evening and we were able to breathe easily after not getting that for the past few nights. My goal of eating an alligator, celebrating with the band, catching up with old friends, wearing beads, and having the band collectively scoring a free DVD bootleg on the streets of New Orleans was satiated later that evening. A wise man once said “Today, I didn’t even have to use my AK. I gotta say it was a good day.”
To be concluded in Part 4…