Show on the road
The tour diary of a first-time rock ’n’ roll road warrior
One thing the Dire Straits got wrong is that for most musicians —at the amateur, semi-professional, and barely professional levels, at least—there is no money for nothin’. In fact, being in a band is a lot like moving furniture. Hauling amplifiers and kick drums is a lot like moving refrigerators and color TVs. A rock ’n’ roll tour is a perverse mix of road trip, furniture moving job, and public therapy session. But it’s mostly just driving or sitting in the back of a van, nursing a hangover and talking about music.
Day ONE: Reno to Seattle
Three of us left Reno in a rented Dodge Avenger around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 8: Me, metaphorically removing my mild-mannered RN&R arts editor’s glasses for a week and donning my rock ’n’ roller cape; Clint Neuerburg, the guitarist of the noise rock trio Elephant Rifle, of which I am the vocalist; and our tour mate Raj Bhatt, a rapper and musician, formerly of Reno and now based in Boston.
A bittersweet undercurrent of the entire tour was seeing how many of Reno’s best and brightest have left town to blossom elsewhere.
We were headed first to Portland, about nine hours away, to meet up with the third leg of the Elephant Rifle stool, Troy Micheau. Troy was in the process of moving to Portland, and the bulk of our gear was there with him. His ’99 Honda Odyssey was to be our principal touring vehicle. After Portland, we were set to keep trekking through the night to Seattle, another three hours, where we were set to stay with our friend Mike Modene, a former band mate of Clint’s.
We had our first big music debate—about the Pixies—before we’d even gotten out of the Reno city limits. (I love them; Clint thinks they’re overrated.) Listening to music, often accompanied by lengthy analytical discussions of same, was the principal occupation of our minds throughout the tour. The first night alone we listened to, among other things, Led Zeppelin, Neurosis, The Beatles, Queens of the Stone Age, Big Boi and “Dopesmoker,” an epic 61-minute song by the doom metal band Sleep.
Clint did all the driving from Reno to Portland. He’s been a constant presence in the local Reno music scene over the past five years. He’s played in a bunch of bands, Think in French, Short Hair and Manacle among them, runs the Humaniterrorist record label, was the music director for youth arts organization Holland Project, and is an occasional contributor of music writing to this newspaper.
I first met him back in ’05, when I interviewed him for an RN&R story about Think in French. He’s the sort of bigmouthed, belly-laughing, stereo-cranking dude I really like to get drunk with. We’ve become good friends over the years, and I’ve enjoyed his musical projects, so when he asked me, late last year, if I’d be interested in starting a band with him, it was a no-brainer.
Clint’s not the least bit shy about asking personal questions. So I wasn’t really surprised when, just a couple of hours in, he asked me, “Hey Brad, is this your first time on tour?”
I was a little embarrassed that I’m 30 years old, have been playing in bands for 12 years and have never been on tour before. The other three guys are all seasoned road vets. I was the newbie. Most of my rock bands never really got off the ground. We’d write a few songs, play a show or two, and then break up. Some of them didn’t even get that far. Some bands didn’t even last a full practice. It’s a difficult thing to be in a band with other people.
“Creative differences,” the clichéd reason a band or publicist will use to explain a break-up, is often a euphemism for “they couldn’t stand to look at each other anymore,” but just as often it’s a legitimate, band-killing problem. It’s hard to keep playing punk rock if half the people in the band are ready to move on to post-punk, so they break up.
Then there’s the basic interpersonal aspect. Playing in a band is a sort of job, and every job has two parts: the work and the coworkers. Even if everyone in the band shares a collective vision and plays together beautifully, if you don’t get along, you don’t get along. Fights between band members can be as phone-throwing vicious as fights between lovers. Some bands, like some couples, just need to break the eff up.
I guess this is why people start solo careers, but most of my favorite music is made by bands. I love the Rolling Stones, but I’ve never really liked a Mick Jagger or Keith Richards solo album. I’m currently in two bands, Elephant Rifle and a songwriting-oriented, folksy indie rock band, The Frontiersmen.
Anyway. I’ve digressed, because, like I said, I’m a little self-conscious about my answer to Clint’s question: “Yep. This is my first real tour. I’ve played out-of-town shows before but never gone out for more than a weekend.”
“Cool,” said Clint. “I feel like I’m the tour shepherd.”
We ran into some delays, including a half hour lost on Highway 395 near Hallelujah Junction because of some construction, and we got a little lost in the nightmare parking garage of the Seattle airport, when we were dropping off the rental car, but we successfully rendezvoused with Troy, had no real problems, and we made it to Mike’s house in the wee hours of the morning, delirious but intact.
Day TWO: Seattle
We spent the next day hanging out with our friends in Seattle, many of whom are expatriated Reno musicians, like Chris Costalupes, formerly of the bands Over-Vert and Idle Screamer, and Jon Kortland and Jensen Ward of the now semi-famous band Iron Lung.
Our show that night was the first of our tour, which Clint jokingly dubbed, for reasons I never quite understood, “The Meeting of the Minds Tour 2010.” (We eventually changed that to “The Meating of the Minds Tour” and briefly referred to it as the “The Mething of the Minds Tour.”) The show was at a Seattle bar called The Pony. A sign near the front door read, “This is a gay bar, a very gay bar.” And indeed it was very gay, quite possibly the gayest place I’ve ever seen. The walls were plastered with nude male pin-up photos, and there was a male go-go dancer gyrating on the bar. A projector was beaming campy movies on one wall. The place was packed with people, very few of whom looked as though they might be interested in heavy, dissonant rock music.
Even the Iron Lung guys seemed slightly out of their element.
“This reminds me of that place we played in Europe,” said Jon.
“Which place?” asked Jensen.
“All of ’em,” said Jon.
This show was also my first experience of our tour mate Raj’s new music. Raj was a link between Reno’s punk and hip-hop scenes back around the turn of the millennium. He’s a high school teacher in Boston now but takes the summers off to tour and work on music. He worked as a producer and MC under the name Rajbot for a long time, but his current project is called FRKSE. Pronounced “forks,” it’s much grittier than his Rajbot material. It’s not really hip-hop, either, more like dark, ambient, sampler-based soundscapes.
His set at The Pony was great, partly because the weird ritualistic movie Scorpio Rising was coincidentally being broadcast behind him throughout his set, and it provided the perfect visual counterpoint to his music.
Troy Ayala, another Reno expat and a former band mate of Clint’s, booked the show for us, and his upbeat new band, Stickers, was a crowd pleaser. Our set was less well received by The Pony audience, partly because of two incidents.
The first incident requires a bit of explanation. My vocal approach in Elephant Rifle basically requires me to sing from the bottom of my belly and forcibly push air all the way up through my guts and lungs. It sounds good, but has the unpleasant byproduct of causing me to hack up whatever has been lingering in my stomach. It can get pretty gross.
Near the end of our set, I spat out a sickly ream of brown fluid into an empty pint glass. Some guy—and I think he was trying to be funny, but he might’ve just been unobservant—walked up and clinked my glass, as in a toast, but everyone else was thoroughly disgusted.
Not long after that, Troy says to me, “Tell them about your interview with Danzig.”
Regular RN&R readers might recall that I interviewed heavy metal vocalist Glen Danzig a few weeks ago. One of the more memorable bits from the interview was when Danzig said, describing the movie X-Men, “The director wanted to make kind of like a gay movie, and that’s what he did.”
Recounting this bit of the interview seemed like a great idea for stage banter, but I rushed through the introduction, so it ended in a yank-the-needle-off-the-record moment when it seemed like I was criticizing the X-Men for being too gay—in a gay bar. Some of the clientele seemed to appreciate the sheer audacity of it, but just as many got up and walked outside.
Day THREE: Seattle to Portland
The next day, we slept in and spent a few hours record store shopping before heading back down to Portland. Our show there was at a North Portland bar called Ducketts Public House. The flyer for the show described us as “ugly Reno posttardcore”—not posthardcore, mind you, but posttardcore—a description we all really liked. The bar fit our vibe, and the three local bands we played with, Ribcages, Caregiver and Drunk Dad, were all great and totally pumped about us.
“Man, Reno must have an awesome scene!” said one of the guys from Drunk Dad. “That’s where Iron Lung is from!”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that Iron Lung hasn’t really been from Reno in a long time.
We were primed to have a great night there, but then the only major bummer of the whole tour happened: Raj, in the midst of an intense FRKSE set, managed to slam his hand against the ground and break his left pinky finger. It was nuts. One minute he was rockin’ out like a champ, the next minute he’s standing there in agony with his pinky flopping around like a dying fish.
Caregiver, who had already played, really earned their name by offering to give Raj a ride to the emergency room so that we could play our set. We were all a little on edge, so the set was fast and furious—not to mention sloppy—but the crowd seemed to dig it.
We then headed over to Legacy Emanuel Hospital and spent a surreal hour and a half among the glum and anxious faces of the late night crowd at a neighborhood emergency room. After a while, Raj emerged, looking disheartened and frustrated.
“It’s fuckin’ broken,” he said. “I’m really sorry, guys. I’m embarrassed. I can’t believe I broke my finger.”
“Ah, man, don’t worry about it,” I said. “It was a real rock ’n’ roll injury. You actually broke it with the sheer power of your music. We’ll tell everybody you did it at the beginning of the set and just kept right on playing.”
On the plus side, one guy was so pumped about our band, or moved by Raj’s tragedy, or both, that he came up to the van while we were loading up, and offered us an eighth of weed.
In an unrelated anecdote, we went to the famous Voodoo Doughnut and visited another Reno transplant, Camille Torres, a former mainstay of Reno’s music scene who works there now. We loaded up on doughnuts, including some vegan ones for vegeheads Raj and Troy and a couple of bacon maplebars for me because apparently I want a heart attack.
Day FOUR: Portland to Napa
This was our longest driving day. We went from Portland all the way down to Napa, Calif., about an 11-hour drive. When I think of touring, I’ll recall a recurring moment from this day: sitting in the back of the van, staring out the window, sipping tea to nurse my shredded throat, while my tour mates talked about records. Of course, we didn’t just talk about records. We also talked about religion, our girlfriends, our parents and the all-time best fight scenes in action movies.
We tried to listen to the World Cup final on the radio but couldn’t find consistent reception. I drifted in and out of sleep. But mostly we listened to music and talked. In terms of male bonding opportunities, going on a rock ’n’ roll tour rivals LSD-fueled camping trips, playing on losing sports teams, or joining the military.
Troy did the bulk of this driving, as he did for the majority of the tour. He’s a thoughtful guy, really knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. He’s geeky without being nerdy, and sensitive without being a pansy. He’s either a very talkative introvert or a very introspective extrovert, I can’t quite decide which. Either way, he’s moving to Portland with his other current band, Swahili, in which he plays guitar and percussion. He also used to play drums in one of my favorite Reno bands of the past 10 years, The Young Lions.
Napa might seem like a strange place for a noise rock band to play, but Paul Slack of the band Planets owns a ranch nearby, and he and his wife own Bloom Salon, a hair salon in town, which was where we played. The show was a benefit concert for a high school girl raising money to go to art college. The bill was very eclectic. A pleasant indie rock band played before us, and we were followed by a classic rock-covering bar band.
Our set was a little off. After two intense shows, my voice was in horrible shape, cracking and wheezing like crazy, which fortunately works well with our ugly, noisy music. But the majority of the crowd there had no idea what to make of us. People looked at us sideways, like the elephant in the room.
The highlight of the evening was FRKSE’s set. With his broken finger, he wasn’t sure how he was going to pull everything together, so the three of us backed him as FRKSE’S Super Group. I was stoked because I got to play guitar, something I do in my other band but don’t usually do with Elephant Rifle.
After the show, we got some PBR and headed to Paul’s ranch. My fiancée was horrified to learn that we went to Napa, wine capital of the West, and all we drank was cheap beer. Well, what we might’ve missed out on in quality, we made up for in quantity. We drank until the wee hours, then fell asleep while watching Ghostbusters.
Day FIVE: Napa to Berkeley
It turns out Paul owns a DeLorean! How cool is that? Here’s something funny about DeLoreans you might not know: In Back to the Future, to get the DeLorean to travel time, it has to be driven to the speed of 88 miles per hour, but the speedometer of a DeLorean only goes up to 85 miles per hour. It’s like a conspiracy to keep you from learning what the car is really capable of.
We spent the morning at Paul’s ranch, posing for mock movie poster pictures next to the DeLorean and eating freshly picked fruit. Then we went to the local movie theater and watched Predators, which we all liked more than RN&R film critic Bob Grimm did.
Then we drove to Berkeley, not because we had a show there, but just because we all really like the East Bay. This was actually our one day off, which I was thankful for, because my voice needed some rest.
We stayed in Berkeley with our friend Mike Angelini, another Reno expat and one of Clint’s legion of ex-bandmates. It was just a chilled, relaxed day.
Day SIX: Berkeley to Reno
The next morning, we did what any music fan does when he has a couple of hours to kill in Berkeley: We went to Amoeba Records. It’s a place, like Portland’s Voodoo Doughnut, where the cashier at another city’s iconic business was a familiar Reno face. This time, it was writer, artist and musician Ryan Stark. Having visited all three Amoebas within the past few months, I want to say that the Berkeley location is way better than its sister stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And not just because Stark works there, though that helps.
After the record store, we had lunch at Soulely Vegan, a vegan soul food restaurant in Oakland, which I highly recommend. Then we drove up to Sacramento and played a show at a cool underground all-ages venue, The Hub. We played with two Sacramento bands, Repressive Proteins and Warm Streams, a fun punk band, who we also played with at Reno’s Broken Spoke a few months ago.
At this point, I was fully in the swing of the touring life, ready for the days to fly by and to continue on in this beautiful nomadic way of living. But the tour was over.
We barely spent a second of downtime in Sacramento. We punched in, worked, punched out. We showed up, we played the show, and we drove home to Reno. And when I say “we” drove home, I mean Troy drove home, with wakefulness assistance from Raj. Clint and I crashed out and slept for nearly the entire ride.
Day SEVEN: Reno
I got to sleep in Wednesday morning, in my own bed, then had a relaxing day just hanging around the house. I took my girl out for dinner. That night, we played the last show of tour at the Lincoln Lounge. A fun, slightly sentimental set in front of our home field crowd of friends. When I describe the set as fun and sentimental, that’s referring to the vibe, not the music, which was still nasty and gross.
It wasn’t until midway through our set when we really confronted a hard truth that had been nipping at the edges of the tour: This was going to be our last show. At least with this line-up. At least for a long time. Clint and I will no doubt start a new project, and we’ll probably even keep the Elephant Rifle name and some of the songs, but it won’t be with Troy because he’s moving to Portland. Like many of Reno’s most creative and talented musicians, he feels like he’s hit a ceiling in this town. So he’s moving away.
I don’t like what that says about Reno. I’ve been going to live, local music in Reno for 15 years. I’ve played in the scene off and on for much of that time and have been documenting and writing about Reno music for eight years. Getting out of town, and on the circuit, didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know, but it did reiterate a hard truth about Reno music: The good bands either break up, or they fall into some easy-to-peg genre and plateau, or they move away. To be fair, I guess those are the fates of all bands everywhere, but in Reno it happens at an accelerated rate and on a smaller, more pathetic scale. Too often, the best musicians in Reno just decide to leave.