On the Road (Again) with Peat Rains from You Bred Raptors?: Part 4
Day 15 – Chattanooga, TN – JJ’s Bohemia
We set our alarms for 9 am with a hard-out by 10 am in New Orleans. We were up late and made those silly, but earnest plans for all of us to get breakfast together. It’s the type of thing you say and completely mean in the moment until said moment comes and you wonder what the hell you were thinking. KC finally woke up around 10:30 and slowly roused the crew. A text message to our gracious hosts would have to suffice in lieu of a big southern breakfast. This was to be our last big haul for the tour. Seven hours ahead of us on this particular day, and 30+ under our belt from the last few, we had a lot of pavement pass below us. We’d be traveling north to Chattanooga to a JJ’s Bohemia, where we’ve played a few times. The next two days would be co-headlining with our good friends from Nashville, Fable Cry, a fun pirate and carnival rock band with a similar cadence in music and a mutual flair for the theatrics on stage.
Our original route had us going east after the bayou. As I mentioned earlier, Atlanta was the first to confirm for this run. Then, after securing acts and a legitimate venue, the booker informed me that the show went belly up. He and I seemed to have a silent disagreement on what ‘confirmed’ meant. He’s a good guy and has gone to bat for us before so I didn’t push it. It boils down to having a more profitable bill or private party challenging your hold or “confirmed” show. It’s up to the venue or talent buyer to break either of these agreements. So, our plan to hit Georgia and then North Carolina was now shot. Chattanooga is a beautiful city; its town centered flanked by a moat-like river, but the places to play are sparse. JJ’s had hosted us before, but admittedly, the nights have been wildly hit or miss depending on local support.
Tonight would be a three-band bill of sonically similar bands. We learned the day before playing that the start time had changed from 7 pm to 10:30 pm due to a comedy open mic going on. The silver lining is that the place would probably be more full, but the risk is also that it would clear out. Couple that, our load-in would have to be all tip-toes in a cramped corner, filled to the brim with three band’s worth of equipment. We chose to perform first that night, then Fable Cry, and then the local band. It’s a chance going opening a show on tour, but worth chancing if it’s late enough or after another event. Our band is confident with our music and performance. Based on history, even in tested territory, any myriad of variables can fuck up your best-laid plans.
I listened to the comedy show while we waited to go on. I’ve always felt a kinship with comedians. Along with musicians, they seem to be the last in the line of traveling artisans, honing their craft in different markets. I hope there is some romanticism left in the idea of lillypadding from shitty hotel to shitty motel watching the strength of your strongest set crumble beneath you and feeling the motivation to make it better. As performers, we each tour constantly, consistently put out content to short attention spans, and have the incredibly noble job of just being available when the right call comes along. We are underpaid, working several jobs, swimming in fierce and unfair, stacked competition, and constantly under the scrutiny of the general population. The trope of the terrible open mic is there for a reason. A lot of times, it IS bad. But, so are music and poetry open mics, sometimes much, much worse. It takes a lot of courage to get up on stage, no matter what the medium might be. I’ll respect anyone that has the guts to go up there and maybe bomb in front of a bunch of people, even if they are a forgiving audience full of the other performer’s friends. You walk before you run. And you run before you commit to a marathon knowing you might be unprepared and uncontrollably shit your shorts on Mile 19. From a personal perspective, even speaking between songs during shows is intimidating at times. I liken it to riding a bull; I’m ON for like eight seconds and can be funny and engaging for that amount of time. Anything past that… I’ll need a rodeo clown to distract the crowd and a catheter to heal. So, I acted like a good audience member and clapped after the punchlines.
We couldn’t set up early tonight so we’d have to be lightning-fast when given the go-ahead. It’s mid-week and we wanted to continue being consistent and energetic in our live shows, even if the potential crowd was not expecting it. There’s no guarantee tonight so hopes were high for merch sales and a good door-take. The stage was extra small while setting up, trying to finagle drum gear sharing as well as various amps having to be backlined. Times like this make me wish we were a band of flutists and maraca shakers.
All three bands played amazingly tight sets. Fable Cry, with their snazzy and flashy outfits, designated to make every other band look frumpy, did their usual, jaw-dropping performance. While not being overly technical (though any one of them could easily pull that card too), they have the amazing ability to linger on the notes they don’t play and leave you wanting more. More on them later. The third band was incredibly technical and powerful surf-punk music. The comedy crowd had mostly stuck around and the place was quite full for a weekday. I was saying Hail-Mary’s that it would translate to some merch sales and our hotel for the night would be paid for in advance. But tragedy struck later when we settled up: We were given $100 to split between the three bands. The problem with door deals is that there sometimes isn’t much accountability. I’m not saying something was fishy here… Maybe, the comedy audience, who didn’t pay to see us play, made up most of the crowd. But, it seemed doubtful. Maybe, I was hit on the head with a hi-hat stand and was seeing double, and the crowd wasn’t that big after all. Either way, we just had to take it. The local band was cool enough to abstain payment so we split it with Fable Cry. $50 to drive seven hours that day and three tomorrow is the punchline for the night. The point is to push for a guarantee whenever possible. It’s quite a letdown to get boned on payment after a night of great music, decent turnout, and good vibes.
On the plus side, the band stayed at a placed called the Microtel, which was a miniature hotel. It was like a hobbit-hole minus the singing and dancing and all the extras from New Zealand demanding union rights.
Day 16 – Lexington, KY – Best Friend Bar
With our Atlanta show falling through and having to reroute north through Tennessee, we were faced with a familiar dilemma: hit tested territory and try to recoup costs, or roll the dice somewhere new. We had a stroke of luck just a few months ago in Lexington at Best Friend Bar. Our expectations were very low on that tour because it was in the heart of the UK campus during the off-season, and the venue was a small dive bar. There isn’t anything wrong with dive bars, as they can sometimes win you over with warm reception over big empty rooms and cold crowds. Best Friend Bar had a very small PA and no designated sound technician. We aren’t divas with an extensive tour rider that must be followed to the letter. But, we do heavily rely on the PA with our cello and live looping. With all that said, when we performed there a few months back for the first time, it actually turned out to be a quasi-banger. People showed up, and the other bands were eager and appreciative to play. Normally, we wouldn’t hit a new market that fast again, but they were anxious to have us back and we had fuck-all other options on short notice. Again, we would be in charge of everything from booking the other bands, promoting the night, and running our own sound. With some help from Fable Cry, we were able to secure a local booker to promote and opening act to warm up the room.
The students were still moving in this week, but I was hopeful they would realize that college drools, live bands rule, and promptly show up en masse. After the financial hit we took in Chattanooga, I was beginning to worry about money once again. This is an unfortunately endless thing I get anxious about. I can justify taking a show without a guarantee by showing above-average merch sales for the night when there is a sizable crowd. Development markets mean playing the long game. With each sale, I immediately feel my heart sink again by harping at the thought of having to restock merchandise with what little tour profit we may or may not obtain. We should be getting performance fees. THAT is our talent. The merchandise was never meant to be the only sustaining factor to keep a band afloat. In this very uncertain time of the music industry, it’s the Wild West out there as far as maintaining a business model. The facts are bleak: T-shirt printing is becoming more expensive because of rising gas prices. Digital streaming pays shit. Fewer people are buying physical media (vinyl might be on the rise, but their cost production is still extremely high for bands without proper representation). A band’s social media is entirely dependent on uncompensated and relentless content production. I could honestly write a few testaments of a Bible about these in more detail, but suffice it to say, it’s a Sisyphean effort the entire way.
Tonight, Fable Cry would be going first. I low-key hate when this happens when our bands musically-sixty-nine. They are just so goddamned good. Even in this small space and with limited PA abilities for their setup, they still engaged the crowd and were a tough act to follow. Their instrumentation is electric guitar, fiddle, keyboard, three vocals, 12 string bass, and drums. Yeah, that’s right. TWELVE strings on his bass, putting my paltry eight strings to shame. Scott Fernandez handles the bass responsibilities for this Nashville based group of minstrels. He has had a moderate amount of success through his Youtube channel, hired gun outings in several notable prog outfits, and his solo career teaching bass clinics. Years ago, he decided to jump on one of our tour dates in Murfreesboro, TN (at a dumpy show in a strip mall) for no pay. My initial reaction was shock because he’s sort of an internet celebrity in niche circles. We immediately hit it off for being the weird kids at the bass table. Neither of us saw the bass as some archaic tablet with stone-cut commandments on it. Also, his ability to brush off the barrage of inevitable criticism for coloring outside the lines was inspiring.
Playing an extended range bass has so many musical advantages. I will never understand the disdain for trying new things with it. The bass is a young instrument and wanting to explore its range shouldn’t be some cardinal sin. The dogmatic and sometimes knee j-jerk reaction of exclaiming “Jaco only needed four strings” kinda makes you sound like you’re denying climate change. The keyboard warriors that usually tout this logic are almost never seasoned professionals or gigging musicians. They are collectors, or hobbyists, or just all-around wiener-priests that hate change and probably check Instagram in a crowded theater. Had Jaco Pastorious stayed alive long enough to try out one of these, I can only imagine the things he could have done with it. He was the exact opposite of a poster boy for formal bass playing. Jaco was a fucking alien when it came to his approach. He’s a real inspiration for me for THAT reason; for saying “fuck your root notes, I’m gonna play this crazy solo now in a different key and still make it sound proper.” The scope of the original four-string is STILL being explored. Extended range bassists are just taking it to other degrees. Without formal education, I’ve always treated my bass as a songwriting tool and not some low-end counterpart to anchor the band or sidekick to a guitar solo. That is an integral part of songs, but it shouldn’t be the extent. I’ll never have fast fingers like Jaco, impeccable rhythm like Claypool, or the machine-precision slap and thumb technique of Wooten. I have other abilities and my eight-string has helped me achieve and hone that skill. With that said, Scott Fernandez is way better than I am and you should listen to his band.
The turnout for the night was about the same as last time. It’s a rare treat to be with such good friends on tour for more than one night. Fable Cry grinds it out as much as we do and the immense amount of respect for their music, showmanship, and kindness is graciously symbiotic. You need comrades like these to remember why it’s worth all the bullshit; it keeps you going. Seeing them is bittersweet because leaving them always sucks. The bands all played well. We squeaked by with some merch sales and a small door cut. Tomorrow would be unchartered territory so we wanted to enjoy our time before parting ways with our sister band. We all got lucky in Kentucky that night and learned the true meaning of Christmas along the way. Sorry, I’ll see myself out now.
Day 17 – Morgantown, WV – 123 Pleasant Street
This band has done almost 100 tour dates the last few years. We’ve hit almost every state on this half of the continent. We still have to hit Maine, Mississippi, and Alabama, all east of Tornado Alley. That list used to include West Virginia. I had heard stories alluding that we should skip West Virginia altogether unless it’s in Morgantown. A small, liberal pocket in an otherwise very red state, about an hour south of Pittsburgh, PA. It was because of our extensive touring through PA that this show finally came together. We had been trying to book this place for about two years, with all of our inquiries going unanswered. Then, all it took was a booker/promoter from Pittsburgh telling the talent buyer that they should check us out and boom… we were in. Keep being persistent and if the area you want to book doesn’t work out, play around it. Perform so well that someone will eventually take notice.
We were coming to the tail-end of our voyage on these final two nights. Our spirits were high and luckily, the bookend of this jaunt was all-but-guaranteed bangers. 123 Pleasant was the best venue we could play in this area. Coupled with that, a stacked bill, on a Friday with their school year starting early so attendance was going to be maxed out. Presales looked good, and we had a guarantee with a sweet, direct support slot. There was an upstairs green room and a burrito place across the street. If only they were all like this.
Tara and I ventured across the street to place our pre-show meal. It was a lively establishment with an early evening band wrapping up, and a swarth of people dining and takeout. The band playing was a jazz band with a normal jazzy jazz setup with guitar, drums, bass, saxophone, and vocals. My imposter syndrome usually piques around these bands. Their encyclopedic vocabulary of standards, ability to sight-read music, and improvisational skills will always leave me jealous and longing for a fraction of that understanding. It usually bums me out too as I feel like I’m not worthy of getting up on stage and playing my own music. Insert not-worthy Wayne’s World gif here. But, as we waited for our custom burritos to be churned out, another feeling took over me; my seething hatred for BAD jazz. I’m not here to shit-talk other musicians who are just doing it for fun. It can be fun and you’re not harming anyone. On the other hand, for the love of Jehovah, don’t ever settle for being so generic. Tara, our talented and saintly-kind cellist, as optimistic as she is kind, wasn’t even impervious to nails-on-the-chalkboard grating nature of having to listen to the chorus of “Imagine”, retooled as a smooth, sultry sax solo. It was less Weather Report and more Weather Channel background, filler muzak. The band looked bored as they slogged through “The Girl from Ipanema.” The audience gave courtesy golf-claps when more than a few seconds of silence commenced. Again, nice effort and it beats having to listen to a DJ. But, it made me even more excited to get on stage to play music with a band that of which I was proud. I gave a dollar on my way out as they were packing up. Our band had its roots in busking so I’ll always have respect for people doing it, even if it’s not my jam.
On big nights like tonight, we buy cheap, white masks and leave them out for the crowd to wear. It started by accident in Houston a couple of years ago when the stage was so small, people had mistaken our stage masks for audience participation ones. It was a serendipitous, spontaneous moment where it spawned the idea to help engage bigger crowds. Usually, we would put them out during the last song; with time we have come to just lay them out whenever. Sometimes people are proactive and get the hint. Other times, we designate a song that everyone should wear one. It’s not easy keeping these things on for an entire show, hence why one song is probably the better approach. The ones we get come in bulk from China and we are given the extraordinarily fun task of tying the elastics on each mask ourselves. Yay! As Tara and I sat in the green room, digesting our heavy trough-like amount of food, and tying elastics to 60+ masks, we got to see the sun setting over the Appalachian mountains. It was tranquil and peaceful, and what we hoped would be a good omen for the night.
Even though the bands were quite different in sound, all had a young and vibrant energy to them. The audience was full of college kids so I hoped they had signed their oath during orientation to bring the motherfucking ruckus. The stage was big and the sound guy was a real live person. We were already coming out ahead. The crowd slowly grew as the night went on. Our booker passed out our masks after our first song with a rabid sense of purpose. Words fall short in describing the feeling of completely winning over strangers. They come there to see their friends’ band and here’s this weirdo band from New York City going on. To watch the look of skepticism transform to mild interest, casual acceptance, moderate enjoyment, and finally to full-blown happiness is not something I take lightly. It sounds cheesy, but it’s why we do this. Trying to catch up with the financial aspects and tricky logistics to make this a viable living will always be like barren salmon swimming upstream. But in that moment, making someone happy they showed up early is why we machete through this proverbial jungle. Becoming ‘that band’ that a new person has discovered and tells their friends about via word of mouth, social media, smoke signals, carrier pigeon, or Pony Express is just fucking awesome.
With that said, we didn’t do as well on merch as I had hoped. Cue muted, jazz trumpet. We all basked in putting on another killer show though. We have gotten so tight by the end of this tour and wanted to remain professional as well. We had been desiring to hit this spot for so long, and that our patience had finally paid off. We shot the shit with the booker while loading up. He explained a lot of the history of West Virginia, its misconstrued and misunderstood reputation, and how beautiful of a place it really was. He’s not wrong and we can’t wait to get back here.
Day 18 – Harrisburg, PA – JB Lovedrafts
With every tour this band books, we try to end strong. As obvious as it may seem, I highly suggest/recommend it. It can be the difference between good and bad morale when returning. We need as much positive energy as we can muster entering back into the unforgiving hellscape that we call home. I grew up in Pennsylvania most of my adolescent life. Harrisburg, in particular, has become one of our second homes. With my family completely moved out of the northeast, select friends still remain there. But the few are strong bonds that have always supported this band with a meal, place to crash, and healthy attendance at each show. To see each other intermittently at different stages in life feels all parts surreal, grateful, and fragile as we age.
JB Lovedrafts is a divey, punk bar with a death metal aesthetic. Complete with old school video games at analog TV stations, custom burgers with everything from NERDS to Bagel Bites as condiments, and always a free admission along a busy thoroughfare, this place was full of riff-raff and life. After playing so many mediocre places in my old stomping grounds, finding such a home here was a welcome change. I have a lot of mixed emotions about where I grew up. Like most alternative kids, I never really felt like I fit in with any crowd. Most of it is probably angsty, teen regression, but some of it is founded, I promise. I’m glad we pushed past whatever mental road-blocks I had and accepted a show there years ago. To have a steady home-base in a different market with a slew of familiar faces is an excellent cake-topper on this stretch.
This place has a storied history for us; We used to set up in the back by the bathrooms. People would step over our pedals while we played. You could hear flushing pipes between songs. It was a little annoying but par for the course at the same time. Then they built a kick-ass stage upstairs. But, PLOT TWIST! Some ass-clown complained about the noise and they had to stop putting on upstairs shows. So, we went back downstairs by the bathroom WHERE WE BELONG. But, to our amazement upon arriving this time, in the few months since we have played here last, they have erected a real stage, this time without a set of sewage receptacles near them. We got as giddy as you could possibly get about completed minor construction on a place you don’t own. The stage was more of a trapezoid shape, flush against a back wall of mirrors, but fuck it, it’s better than being an unpaid matron offering people mints after they walk out with toilet paper on their shoe. We love this place.
Even if the last show might seem like a victory lap, it’s always important to hit it out of the park anyway. I have officially run out sports metaphors. End strong and stay professional. We were competing with a VERY large punk show going on down the street. The Queers, an iconic band in the scene, were wrapping up a show by 11 pm at a nearby venue. We slow-rolled setting up after the first band had finished. KC, our drummer, saw me fiddling immensely with my pedalboard. His viewpoint was that I was REALLY selling the idea that I was adjusting and tweaking my sound, trying to make our start time closer to 11 pm. In reality, however, I was panicking; Something was drastically wrong with my pedalboard. I had gotten away with it for the duration of the tour. The first show was a disaster, and it was looking like this last one would be the same. ONE of my pedals was dead. I had no clue which one. I was getting no signal to my bass. I follow the steps you do when tragedy strikes while trying to diagnose the issue; I go in gorilla-style to the amp and I have sound. So, not the bass or amp. Definitely the pedalboard. You DICK. By this point on the tour, the pedals have been shifted, dirtied and tossed around to their limit due to traveling and constant power-cycling. And due to me having a Temple Board, trying each pedal to find the culprit meant unscrewing each pedal from the bottom of the board, one at a time. When the arrangement of pedals is this tight and Tetris so strategic, it can become overwhelming. KC and Tara are set up and sound checked, but I’m beginning to sweat as I test each pedal, still not hearing anything but my acoustic strings. Looper – fine, Reverb – good, Delay – works… The crowd is growing and staring at me. I mouth to Tara “I got nothing” and she looks back inquisitively. I have the impulse of just ripping off certain pedals and daisy-chaining them. Or I could also skip out on certain songs. But neither of these were viable as the show hadn’t even started, and we are headlining. Maybe we could do an acapella set of Top 40 music. The kids these days seem to love that crap, right? Fuck…
Just as in the first show on this tour when something similar happened, the best advice is to stay calm. No one will remember a five-minute interruption during a set if the rest of the set is killer. They WILL remember a whole set, riddled with problems because you tried to patch up a harpoon wound with a Band-Aid. I was on my 5th pedal in the chain (out of about 20) when I finally heard silence. It was probably my boost pedal, or maybe the patch cable to my boost pedal. It doesn’t matter. I changed the patch cable, heard glorious sound but it still didn’t work when engaged. I was glad it was true-bypass though. This means that I could just play straight through the pedal without engaging it and without loss of signal. To be safe, I rerouted the board to bypass some of the rarely used pedals. There were a few songs that had to do without our trademark effects but the audience was none the wiser. The set still felt amazing and we received one of those genuine calls for an encore. Nothing is worse than standing there awkwardly after your last song when you’ve allotted five extra minutes for an encore with only the sound of crickets, pin-drops and the rustling of tumbleweeds.
We played our torsos off that night. I looked down at my mangled pedalboard, and then to the rest of the band, while we played the last chorus to our last song and tried to take it all in. This was the culmination of five months of prep, countless hours, highs and lows, all against the backdrop of the band being in a very uncertain time. This is the reason we are up there. Performing live is the most potent reminder.
As we hit this fork in the road, slamming against the ceiling above us, weighed down in politics, lottery-like odds, and dangerous leaps of faith, I find strength looking how far we have come. We toured three countries this summer and did it by ourselves. Any musician reading this can attest to the onslaught of both solicited and unsolicited advice from every direction while navigating these waters. One piece given to me by a random encounter a few years back stuck with me.
Years ago, we played a sold-out show as support for a big local band. A woman came up and introduced herself to me. She claimed to be a big deal in the music industry and asked me to keep her low profile. Okay? I had never heard of her and only vaguely of the people she had worked with. I needed a bucket to collect all the names she was dropping. After the festivities ended, and the rest of the bands were loading out and waiting to get paid, we got to chatting. We sat in the green room, lamenting the vulnerable state of music, and the unforgiving tundra that is New York City. She reaches into her jacket pocket and pulls out a vial of cocaine. She asks if I want a bump, and I decline. She calls it “candy” and I’m transported back to the ’80s. Drugs and drinking have never been my thing. She asks a bit incoherently if I mind. I shake my head and say it’s cool as to not seem prude. In reality, being around hard drugs makes me uncomfortable and the whole thing felt like such a bad cliché. But she’s already two dollops deep and cutting another line with her Metrocard.
She tells me that our band is one of the most original and fun bands to see live that she has seen in a while. The unorthodox instrumentation, theatrical masks, and engagement with the crowd are what A&R people look for. Our stage show far outweighs our recorded material (she said she had been following us for a while, though I have my doubts), and that any manager would jump at the chance to represent us. Great, right? Then the hammer falls as she wipes her nose, “but no one is going to represent you until you either have a shit-load of money to grease the wheels, or you blow up on the internet. Until then, you’re already better than most bands on your level, you just have to outlast at this point.” It was a deafening piece of advice, poignant and surprising, given the circumstances and delivery. Those words etched into my brain as she called for an Uber to take her to a late-night, invite-only party. We hugged goodbye and I sat wondering our next steps.
Outlast. It’s such a definitive word, with overwhelming tones of finality to it. But at the same time, it’s intrinsically vague and absent of any timeline. This band has been grinding for ten years, with hardcore touring for almost half of that. We’ve thrown ourselves into financial ruin, permanently disabled our bodies, and given up on a lot of potential life milestones in our 20s and 30s to make this dream a reality. It feels like the last two chess pieces inching toward a stalemate, hoping your opponent gives up first. But new chess pieces will always be popping up. Younger and hungrier, and with more connections and resources than you had when you started. These tours make us remember to push past the bullshit. But I keep getting a lingering feeling of the ‘work smarter, not harder’ mentality. Everyone else is taking shortcuts, so why shouldn’t we? The general public does not care as much about live or recorded music, or at the very least do not consume it the way they used to. Quick bites with little prep, as opposed to full meals with strategic planning. Singles over albums. Snapchat Stories over music videos. Streaming over high quality. Hashtags over merch sales. Subscribers over ticket sales. I don’t want to slip through the cracks and become a generic statistic. The trope of the aged rocker, annoying Guitar Center staff and vomiting out their life story to anyone that will listen, about being ‘this close’ to making it… it haunts me and paralyzes me. Long bouts of writer’s block, seeing friend’s bands climb the ranks, watching talentless hacks luck their way to the top are all symptoms of the same disease. I want to break free of all of that and find a new love and epiphanous beginnings as our music continue to evolve. These tours are designed to make us look more valuable to larger bands. But those support slots are drying up. Tour packages and “Evening with…” legacy acts are industry-standard now. It’s not financially beneficial to help out younger bands anymore. The competition will only get more Battle Royale about things as things continue to trickle down the same stream. Her advice, while bleak and trite, wasn’t entirely wrong.
There are amazing things going on in this world, constantly overshadowed by predictable sameness and regurgitated formulaic, digestible media. Our job and YOUR job should you choose to accept it, is to play so goddamned well, make such beautiful art, perform so impeccably that people will be unable to ignore it. Your goal is to break them out of their shells and have them feel the same for your music and art that you do whilst making it. It is rewarding when the pieces fit, and even when they don’t sometimes. That, or you can break into a radio station with fake guns and take hostages until they play your demo tape live on-air. I’m heavily considering the latter.
Thanks for reading.