A Luxury Pursuit, the Anatomy of a DIY Tour (Part II) - Believer Magazine
 Photograph courtesy Morgan Troper
Photograph courtesy Morgan Troper

Me and my band the Assumptions recently toured in support of our second LP, Exposure & Response. This is the second entry in a journal I kept for the duration of the tour. You can read part one here.

November 17th-November 23rd

Touring has been mythologized for as long as rock bands have been going on tour. The tour song is one of the genre’s most hackneyed tropes. “They say that the road ain’t no place to start a family,” Steve Perry intones on Journey’s “Faithfully”, although I’d like to imagine his family is immensely grateful for the millions of dollars those shows earned. Just as often, tour anthems are celebratory, like with The Ramones’ aptly titled “Touring”, which is essentially the band’s itinerary set to music: “Well, we’ve been to London and we’ve been to LA / Spain, New Zealand and the USA / Europe, Japan and Pango Pango / Canada, Siam, Oz, and Komodo.”

Both takes are emotionally honest, but they’re also completely anachronistic. A song like “Faithfully” stems from an era when multi-month-long touring was a serious contractual obligation for rock bands. (And likely a huge bummer for studio rats like Journey.) Similarly, “Touring” just sounds like a band trying to make the best of a relentless tour schedule imposed on them by a heavy-handed record label. If a punk band today released a song like “Touring”, it wouldn’t just seem disingenuous—it would only last 30 seconds.

Case in point: I will probably never tour Thailand or New Zealand. But one of my favorite aspects of touring is seeing new places with my friends. I was born in LA,  but grew up in Portland—a mid-sized city now in the final stages of its transformation into a culturally homogenous wasteland of boutiques selling expensive flannels and cafes that look like the inside of an Apple Store. I remember driving into San Francisco for the first time on tour and feeling like I was entering the real world. San Francisco, especially, with its steep hills and labyrinth of knotted highways, is a brutal training ground for someone used to driving in Portland—a city with a commuting populace so patient and polite that it’s common for drivers to go five miles per hour under the speed limit.

I want to make sure that this part of touring, spending time in new cities, is always special to me; I want every new city to feel as big and alien as San Francisco did all those years ago. But I can sense that feeling start to dissipate. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe it’s because we aren’t covering a lot of ground this time, and virtually all of the places we’re playing—with the exception of Arizona and Wyoming—are familiar to us. I’m sure it also has something to do with the fact that we only had two full days off, for Thanksgiving, which we spent in Las Vegas. If I were to graph our route on a map, it would look like a drunk circle—we started in Washington, zig-zagged between Idaho, Reno and the coast, then made our way down through California. We then played some shows in the Southwest, and will drive all the way up to Montana before heading home. (The farthest east we’re going is Denver.) This specific route is sometimes referred to as a “West Coast Plus” despite comprising only a few bona fide West Coast dates.

In response to the last entry in this journal, someone mentioned that one justification for going on a long tour is that it simply makes your band better. They’re right: even a string of bad shows are valuable, because it’s consistent practice. But I feel like this is only easy to acknowledge in retrospect; it’s hard for me to stop and smell the roses when my upper lip is covered in Dorito dust and I haven’t eaten anything real in days and I’m fretting over the impending time change and the venue won’t respond to my email and shit, we’re almost out of gas again. I’ve settled into the grueling routine of waking up early, being in a car for hours, unloading a ton of equipment into a venue, playing a show, loading that same equipment out of the venue and pack-ratting it into a vehicle, and then going to bed late. When you’re exhausted from a full day of traveling, it’s hard to appreciate anything other than the bare necessities: a shower, a place to sleep, and McDonald’s.

When it comes to touring, DIY bands on the West Coast are at an inherent disadvantage. Being in the Pacific Northwest can feel especially isolating, and Seattleites have it even worse than Portlanders. It takes nearly 14 hours to travel from Seattle to San Francisco. By comparison, it takes just under 2 hours to travel from New York to Philadelphia—two distinct metropolises with equally distinct music scenes. It takes a mere 7-and-a-half hours to go from Philadelphia to Winston-Salem—and by that point, you’re in an entirely different region of the United States.

We’re playing a lot of small towns on this tour. Sometimes, these stops are just intended to shave time off the following day’s drive, but they can also be the best and most fulfilling shows of tour. My favorite show so far was at a small house in Reno, where we played in a living room with amazing acoustics to a small, but kind and attentive, audience. A close second is a chaotic house show we played in Eugene—a town I had mostly written off as a podunk Portland-Bay stopgap ever since some bros heckled me during a show my old band played in 2012 at the Campbell Club, the University of Oregon’s alt-frat.

 Photograph courtesy Morgan Troper
Photograph courtesy Morgan Troper

But shows in smaller cities can also be really bad. Two days before Thanksgiving, we played a show at a bar in Flagstaff that inexcusably started at 7PM and ended at 1AM. The bands played to each other. The best part of the night was the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet at the venue set to free-play. 

My gripes with venues are seldom related to things like poor sound or ambience. One of the worst shows I’ve ever played in my life was at a venue with an amazing green room that had a couch with a Line 6 modeling amplifier built inside of it—but that couldn’t make up for the venue’s lack of transparency regarding door money. I imagine booking agents are helpful when it comes to booking shows at legitimate venues. They negotiate guarantees, right? They ensure that a 24-pack of those adorable 12oz Dasanis is waiting for you in each new town, don’t they? But for those of us without babysitters, designated DIY venues and houses will always be preferable. Less bureaucracy means more fun.

We are on tour with a band from Seattle called Seacats. We all like each other, which is good. 

You hear stories of rock bands—Cream and Fleetwood Mac come to mind—whose musical vitality was directly proportional to their interpersonal dysfunction. In my experience, being frustrated with a bandmate doesn’t result in an impassioned and spontaneous riff off—it just makes for a really shitty performance. 

But being frustrated with your bandmates is an unavoidable part of touring. When five people spend every waking second with each other for a month, their emotional states inevitably sync up. When one person is in a bad mood, everyone is in a bad mood. You become a multi-headed beast gnawing on its own foot. Thankfully, the presence of another band disrupts this weird phenomenon—especially if it’s a band you get along with. 

Seacats also make terrific music. In the Pacific Northwest, Seacats have long been pigeonholed as a “funny band”—a tag they’ve come to facetiously claim. (Their Facebook bio simply reads: “NW indie-rock funny guys since ’09.”) They employ a variety of props during their set, the most notable of which is a shoddily-constructed roulette of band challenges or gags that an audience participant spins. If the wheel lands on “Iron Man”, Seacats bust out a cover of the titular Black Sabbath classic—a song they only barely know how to play. If it lands on “Spongebob”, the band performs a dry read of a scene from a classic Spongebob episode of their choosing. Vocalist Josh Davis remains completely composed even when these antics reach their chaotic pinnacle; he charismatically prowls the stage (or living room, or basement) like a cross between Robert Pollard and Andy Kaufman while his band unravels behind him. It would be alienating if the songs sucked, but they don’t.

A few years ago, I previewed a Seacats show for the Portland Mercury before I really knew anyone in the band. I wrote that “a funny band that makes serious music is terminally fucked from the start” and that dressing up vulnerable, beautiful music with absurdist humor is the “self-destructive equivalent of Michelangelo painting a giant penis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.” (A publicist that worked with the band apparently refused to include that quote in press releases, which is disappointing but completely understandable.) But Seacats’ comedy-infused rock isn’t so much a defense mechanism as it is a referendum on stuffy rock ’n roll tradition. In 2017, the only subversive thing a rock band can do is laugh at itself. Seacats have been teaching me how to laugh at myself, too. That alone has made this tour worthwhile. 

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