TOUR NOTES NO. 1: PREAMBLE

WEDNESDAY, 3-7-07

All in all, it's been a hard time letting go of certain fantasies I've carried around of becoming a rock musician. Pop stardom might be similar or exactly the same as winning the lottery, not just because of the improbability and the excess, but also because there's the seductive element of It Could Happen To You built into the way we talk and conceive of both of those things, improbable and excessive as they may be. Every guy who's picked up a guitar and enjoyed it even just a little has probably entertained the thought that he could, that's to say it'd be physically possible, that he could A) make lots of money and B) convince attractive females to have sex with him by way of C) doing something as dumb as playing a guitar (and you can imagine the sort of guy to whom this train of logic would particularly appeal--my take is that rock music is full of withdrawn, self-inhibited nerds). The thing that really makes it work is kind of this apparition of evidence that seems to hover around rock mythology, e.g., musicians you'd rank as second-rate hacks making it big overnight, the local coffee shop act is plucked up by corporate A&R at random, small-town choir boy wins American Idol etc. etc. I'm not a dumb guy, but some part of my decision-making ability is informed by shit like this. I'd even say I enjoy it. But I had a friend of mine relate it to me like this: take any of your favorite musicians, think about what life must be like for them, and ask yourself if you'd want to be them. When it comes down to it, would you actually want to be one of those guys? Somehow this idea was profound to me, or it just arrived at a time when it was easier for me to accept the limits of my talents, and when I was finding that what I wanted out of the world was ultimately more abstract and vague than getting to play guitar for a living.

The rock star fantasy's nonetheless not ever going to die completely. For example, I just quit my job for a month so that I can roadie for my friend Mark's band. That decision was more or less unambiguous for me; I find that the element of simultaneous eating and having-of my life's cake is extremely prominent here. You don't often get the chance to take a step out of your life and sample, even if only for a little while, the stuff of pursuits that you're either too wise or too discouraged to embrace.

As some sort of moral exercise/concession, I'm trying to turn the tour into this Life Challenge whereby I'll take lots of photos and meet people and wax philosophical about and write what I observe, live a bit more dangerously than I'm used to, just really suck it all in, but really now: deep down this is about vicarious rock stardom. Let's be clear about how cool I think this is: The band's name is So So Modern. They are from Wellington, New Zealand, and they play a kind of post-punk-informed synth-pop or maybe electroclash if that means anything to you, and it is high-energy and frenetic and uses lots of disco beats and stop-starts and I won't try to describe the music any further because the risk of embarrassing music-related prose (cf. "dancing about architecture" and your average review at Pitchfork) is unbelievably high. The fellows' names are, in alphabetical order: Aidan, Dan, Grayson, and Mark (with whom I shared a roughly 7' by 20' by 10' concrete prism at UC Berkeley's International House during the 2003 fall term). I do think they're a good band and that their new record is also very good, and I think I am not simply Just Saying That. They arrived in the US this morning and I picked them up from a bus station in Van Nuys, and it took us two trips to move the four of them and their gear to my house. We'll be in Los Angeles for about a week, and then in Austin for South-by-Southwest for all four days, and then in the East Coast for the rest of the month. After that, I go back to California, and the band heads to Europe. My responsibilities will be to drive cars, carry cases and amps, potentially set up and fix guitars (a job for which I am staggeringly unqualified), take phone calls for them on my cell, and troubleshoot any issues relating to American culture and bureaucracy that might arise. Really I think I'll be kind of like an intern. Anyway, I'll let you know how it goes.

TOUR NOTES NO. 2: PILOT ERROR

THURSDAY, 3-8-07

I took the band with me to UCLA, where I had an appointment to meet with some students in the anthropology department. Parking on campus is a somewhat Kafkan affair: I drove up to two separate lots that could not be entered without special tickets that according to the sorta recondite signs above the entry gates could be acquired from the "nearest information booth or parking office". Which advice I found to be helpful in such a remarkably unhelpful way. Fortunately I had a map of the campus on hand, and so we made our way to the nearest point on the map that had a gigantic lowercase "i", and this turned out to be the manned nerve center of all campus parking facilities. There were these girls in a claustrophobic glass hut that would jog out to entering cars and ask them where they were trying to park, and then they'd scurry back to a computer or an intercom and figure out the nearest available parking lot, and then again jog out to the cars and assign them to lots.

I forget what we were talking about exactly--we were joking about something or other--when I rolled the car into a Volvo parked next to the spot I was trying to pull into. Moments earlier I'd decided that I ought to try and park away from other cars and I guess I turned my head for a split second. I left a quick note under the wipers and had Grayson take this commemorative photo:

I spent the rest of the day expecting an annoyed phone call but ended up receiving no such thing. Perhaps it's too early to say, but my current theory is that the pictured damage might not actually have been a result of my spectacular maneuvers, but rather of some past mishap which by rather odd circumstance occurred at the same general angle as my own, and so it only looked like I did any visible damage. What inspires that idea is partly that I never got called (although maybe this remains to be seen), and partly due to the shattered rear brake light, which I am sort of convinced could not have been the result of my hitting the car, since first of all it was a fender-to-fender hit, and secondly there are no smoking-gun chunks of tail-light plastic on the floor. This of course hinges on the assumption that the damage to the Volvo's fender was inflicted at the same time that the tail-light was broken, which I will say looks at least a little possible.

What's maybe not a joking matter is that my vehicular incidents tend involve parking somehow. Granted, the sample size isn't all that large--I hit a moving car once in the parking lot of Ralph's, and I've gotten two parking tickets and once have had my car towed (albeit those in the draconian traffic purgatories of San Francisco, Silverlake, and Hollywood respectively) as a result of not really paying enough attention when I'm parking a car. It's a little too obvious and unspecific simply to insist that I be more careful in these situations, so what might be more useful would be to really try to enjoy the act of navigating a parking lot, to treat it like a highly entertaining exercise of avoiding slow-moving and stationary objects, like you know a videogame or something. I seriously think that might help.

TOUR NOTES 3: LOS ANGELES SHOPPER'S HEAVEN

FRIDAY, 3-9-07

The Guitar Center on Sunset Blvd. has got an overhanging entrance like an old box-officed movie theater, under which are concrete placards with the handprints of rock stars past and present but really mostly past. ZZ Top and Toto inexplicably occupy prime real estate; Metallica's off to one side, and blink and you'll miss Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. There's a display case off to the left with the guitars of Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck (which if you really wanted you could steal pretty easily, and so I'm left to believe they're fakes), and on the right they've got a kind of unofficial rock hall of fame with the images of Lennon and Orbison and Bonham and Hendrix, who I guess were guys that died before they could leave their handprints in one of the blank squares in the floor. Inside, you can find Clapton's "Blackie" guitar rotating in a columnar glass case, and further back you can buy 1950's-model Strats for like Fifty Grand or so. The whole concrete thing is a riff on Graumann's Chinese Theater's movie star foot- and handprint thing--I think the place has got to be the biggest guitar store in the world (I don't see a need for anything bigger, really) and is clearly aware of the fact.

The guys needed to take care of some shopping--Mark and Aidan needed keyboard stands, Grayson wanted a new delay pedal, Dan basically needed just about everything--so I thought Sunset's GC would be a fun place to go. Of course, they're way too ironic to take any of the music nostalgia at face value. I figured the fun would be in the novelty and the extravagance and the corniness of it all. Rock instrument retail is basically very trite and conservative and potentially irrelevant to what's actually progressive and interesting in rock music, only you have to buy picks and instruments somewhere. But isn't it strange that anybody who plays guitar is playing on some design that was basically figured out and institutionalized four or five decades ago? Isn't it strange that stompboxes don't really get any better or cheaper despite that computers and cars and TVs and basically anything that has electric components have all gotten radically neater and more affordable, even in the last five years or so? And then when you walk into GC or whatever music store of sufficient size, it's always the same basic assortment of guitar-wanking riffraff and sales personnel--just about the only recent development I've noticed is that a lot of places are adding ambiguously slutty-hot female staff to man the front doors (pretty weird and remarkable actually--it's like a secretary complex or something). And also the marketing is utterly ceaseless. You buy a pack of strings and the guy at the counter asks for your complete address because for whatever reason the central GC database forgets you every time, but then you'll get a card in the mail whenever there's a holiday sale or clearance, and this is so consistent you can set your watch to it. Guitar Center is basically a drag.

After and hour and a half of much tooth-sucking consumer angst, we came out of GC with just a set of drum sticks, and also a two-level keyboard stand that Aidan actually bought at the Sam Ash across the street (of which much the same as GC can be said, maybe minus all the self-anointed center-of-the-rock-universe crap). Then we took a hard slog through LA traffic to get to the Fry's in Burbank. On the way the band guys were taking turns playing DJ on iPods, but eventually they settled on singing and chair-dancing along with songs from their new record. There's probably analogies to this in most creative activity: listening to your own stuff is always very weird and self-conscious but IMO one of the most exciting parts of making music. Most musicians are quick with the modesty, claiming that they'd gotten so sick of writing/performing/recording their music that they can't bear to listen to it, but this is convenient because it spares you the potentially foot-in-mouth claim that you think your own stuff is good, which is always very risky to say. But I kind of think a recording exists independent of what the composer and performer have going on in their own heads; that's to say that music is only exciting and surprising because you're not exactly sure what you're going to get while you're in the process of making it. So the thrill of hearing how things come together is extremely cool, and the more involved you were in the creative process, the more surprising and exciting it actually is. That being said, we happen to live in a culture that tends to mythologize individual genius, and at the same time we're pretty self-conscious about it, and so the act of listening to your own stuff always seems a kind of indulgence or even masturbation. But the fact of the matter is that no music gets quite a rise out of you like your own.

Fry's Electronics has a novelty/revulsion dynamic like Guitar Center, and is also one of those places that I simultaneously A) hate going to and B) tend to find myself inside, a lot. I guess for the band guys, though, it was the first time they'd seen an electronics store of such scale and affordability. Actually, except for Mark, it was the first time any of them had been stateside, and for Aidan and Dan it was the first time they'd been outside of NZ or Australia. Commerce and consumption seem to be huge part of the way they think about America, and this has come up repeatedly either as the direct subject of conversation, or in passing, through jokes and little observations here and there. For the expatriated NZ musician, the size of US juice containers is gargantuan, the selection of food items at any given supermarket both extremely broad and strange (chocolate-chip pancake-dough corndogs probably make a strong impression on even the most seasoned visitor), and the prices Very Cheap indeed. Exchange rates and purchasing-power parity and the relationship thereof are all things that confuse the shit out of me, but apparently it all amounts to extreme consumer temptation when one is actually confronted with US prices for things such as digital cameras and delay pedals. I have watched Mark and Grayson (respectively) teeter on the brink of big-splash acquisitions on the grounds of They'd Be Paying 20% More If This Were Back Home In New Zealand.

Also prominent on their minds are the weirdness of driving on the wrong side of the car which is also on the wrong side of the road (a fact from which Dan has not yet really recovered; if he sits shotgun he will make some comment about it, and is already declaring his intentions on giving the US driving thing a go himself); the weirdness of mini-malls as the center of city planning and the weirdness of massive suburban sprawl; the weirdness of expressions such as "flip a bitch"; the weirdness of universities being geographically congealed globs of structures as opposed to being buildings distributed across a city. And then, notably, there is also the whole violence/racism/bellicosity thing that comes I think as a result of the global reach of hip-hop and Fox News (and the panoply of associated controversy/paranoia/neuroses), and the fact that the US tends to invade countries for what appears to most thinking observers as plain old profit motive--when the guys want to put on American accents, usually it's in some kind of ebonicized cap-in-yo-ass rant or US football jock-talk. Or they will be reading aloud the marketese written on the side of a box of breakfast granola with a cheesy Midwestern ad-voice. That violence and ignorance (ours, not theirs, I mean) and money predominate their impression of America is kind of abstractly depressing but also not particularly surprising, and maybe it's even a little deserved.

TOUR NOTES 4: SOME PHOTOGRAPHS

SATURDAY, 3-10-07

The band had a fair bit of free time during their first few days in LA, but sadly I am probably the world's poorest host when it comes to showing people around town. The only thing I'm worse at is taking pictures. Anyway, here are some pictures of me taking the band around town, sorta:


Our house is in Granada Hills, which is the northernmost part of the San Fernando Valley (as in the Valley, of Valley-girl and porn-capital fame); immediately behind our neighborhood there's a county park that primarily consists of near-desert hills which are not super entertaining or challenging but afford a nice view of said Valley and the smog of the Greater LA metropolitan area. Pollution aside, it does help you appreciate how very green much of the Valley is, especially for semi-urban sprawl.


Left to right: Grayson, Dan, Mark, and Aidan.


This is Mark valiantly attempting a 5-minute sketch of the non-descript and haze-obscured Valley skyline.


Mark with my brother-in-law Jason, my sister Justine, and my mom.



Later on that evening we found ourselves in a combination laundry-coffee shop in Culver City, where we discovered a classic multi-game Neo Geo cabinet. Arcade machines are basically irrelevant at this stage in the evolution of video games, but anyone who has a clear memory of the early 90s or earlier is going to get a little recidivist tingle of joy any time s/he sees a working cabinet.

Everyone save Grayson maybe (and he was still pretty into it) was immediately transfixed by the cabinet--Dan had this wide-eyed expression of feral lust for maybe 20 minutes going, surely except for when I destroyed him at King of Fighters ('97 I believe), during which occasion he must have been wearing a face of unadulterated shame. I can't say for sure because I was too busy basking in the warm glow of the victory screen.


Mark and Aidan playing Puzzle Bobble (is that not the same game as Bust-a-Groove?), which they really got into.


In fact Mark and Aidan were so into it that they found a website where you can play it online through some ingenious use of Flash and/or Java, and they were playing it basically continuously except for when they were sleeping, and except for when we we were all dealing with some of the more absurd events of the evening, to be described shortly.

TOUR NOTES 5: THE HOSPITAL

SUNDAY, 3-11-07

But so anyways, when Dan eats his food, he chews in tiny little bites and occasionally closes his eyes like he's contemplating the texture of it, and then he'll stop to put his fingertips to his jaw. This makes sense from two different angles: first of all he is one of those people who are never in any particular rush and by their nature tend to savor everything. When we went to the museum I think Dan was the only one to stop and read every placard of every exhibit, and I very nearly ditched him in Beverly Hills when the guys jaywalked (or ran) across Beverly Drive to get to my illegally-positioned car (stopped mid-traffic) and I didn't realize he was like ten to fifteen seconds behind. But really I think the eating thing is more due to Dan's having had his wisdom teeth removed prior to arriving in the States and thus having no choice but to savor his food in tiny munches and meditative pauses. He's also been popping Panadol and antibiotics and salt-water-rinsing but appearing unaffected or not wanting to be affected by it.

On Sunday night, after a complaintless and seemingly free-of-jaw-pain meal at a raw-food vegan place in Culver City, we drove over to The Smell, literally a hole-in-the-wall in downtown LA where So So Modern was supposed to play the next evening. Three sets into the night, the sutures that closed the hole in Dan's lower-right jaw where a wisdom tooth used to be apparently started to undo. Dan was spitting blood into the concrete in the alleyway outside. After what was probably too much deliberation we decided that me and Dan ought to go out and find some ice for Dan, and then we spent the next fifteen minutes making a huge rectangular loop around the immediate neighborhood trying to find anything like a purveyor of ice, which was irrefutably a failure. We did, however, succeed in discovering that you could experience a rough capture of the palette of LA demography in that block's worth of space: right down the street from The Smell (full of hipster kids, mostly white and pretending to be living and entertaining themselves below their means) was a massive and exceedingly attractive crowd of yuppies gathered outside of a club (the kind with a nondescript facade and surely extravagant interior, also the kind that provokes (as it did in our case, after the fact) recall to that small but nonetheless meme-level canon of action films about trendy urban vampires that hang out in shitty techno clubs after midnight), and then a bunch of emptied but still-lit skyscrapers, and around the corner and taking up most of the space are Mexican clubs spouting kinda generic-sounding (by my ears, anyway) ranchero music and men in loud shirts and cowboy hats. During our walk, Dan and I semi-coherently tried to reassure each other that Dan would actually be Just Fine and that the air would do him good. We ended up grabbing some ice chips, more congealed than specifically frozen, out of the bottom of The Smell's kitchen freezer and wrapping them with a recycled paper napkin.

At that point Dan claimed that the bleeding had slowed down and that things were back to normal. Exactly how things got worse from there on I'm not exactly sure, since I can only rely on what Dan said, and Dan despite his talents is no doctor. The circumstances might be something like this: Dan hadn't taken a real break from the rock and roll life since getting his wisdom teeth taking out, even though that's normally a procedure that would level your average adult human for a good week. He'd continued to play the tail end of So So Modern's NZ tour, and he gamely jumped on the plane to Los Angeles only like a day later, and then he started to eat some rather intensely solid and not at all soft-and-chewy foods, like a raw-food vegan wrap (collard greens around a combination of tomato, alfalfa, and beans--better than I would have thought really) at the aforementioned restaurant. The real kicker, I think, was that he could feel his sutures coming undone in his mouth, and this led to a vicious temptation-aggravation cycle in which he would prod and probe and rinse the sutures as a way of simultaneously learning more about just what the hell was going on, and mollifying the inevitable oral itch-tickle you'd get from having poky strands in your mouth, and this of course made the pokiness and itchiness worse and made him bleed more and so he was even more curious about what the hell was going on, and before he knew it he was basically yanking bits of blood clot out of his gums. I'm paraphrasing here, both in terms of what Dan said and the order in which these things happened. We actually left The Smell one act early and ended up back at my house in Granada Hills thinking things would be okay, and so I thought all was well and went to sleep, only to have Mark come into my room maybe an hour or two later with a look of contagiously despairing concern on his face. By this time Dan was seated quasimodically in a dining room chair, spitting blood into a progressively less-empty juice glass. Mark had caught me at a bad REM moment and I swear I could not figure out what to do for ten minutes; it wasn't until I was lamely calling what turned out to be a 24-hour crisis line (the kind for the suicidally depressed) that I realized we should take him to a hospital.

So we found ourselves sitting in the emergency room at Providence Holy Cross Hospital (incidentally the site of my birth, but nevermind), me, Mark, Dan and his juice glass, on Sunday morning at let's say 3:00AM or so. The place was mostly empty except for some inebriated dregs who I'm a little ashamed to say annoyed the shit out of me, because I was agitated and my friend was leaking rapidly into a juice glass and I sorta felt like they were all wasting our time. But the triage nurse kicked some ass and got Dan into treatment right away. I took off a little after dawn while Mark stayed behind with Dan; what went on with the treatment I'm not sure of, but I know that they'd had a hard time stopping the blood flow and ended up jamming gauze with clotting agent into Dan's tooth-hole, which although it was prefaced with an application of liquid cocaine was apparently still incredibly painful, and also that Dan progressed through various stages of apoplectic rage and pain-induced dementia of which I know very little, except what Mark said Dan had written down in a little notepad so he could communicate with the doctor--the only excerpt I'm aware of reads cryptically "I'm in pain. 7 AM.", which for whatever fucked-up reason Mark and I found sorta funny. Eventually the doctor shot Dan up with morphine.

(Well while we were waiting for the initial word on Dan, Mark and I flipped through a copy of Adbusters (which actually Dan had gotten at no less a temple of capitalism than Fry's Electronics. Every member of So So Modern is aggressively smart and well-read, and they all carry around a kind of globalized, millennial punk chip-on-the-shoulder: they're all some degree of vegan and vegetarian, suspicious of politics and authority, and intensely ironic and maybe a little smug towards the mainstream.) and talked about the politics of dissent. It was the sort of conversation we'd get into a lot if you got the two of us alone, each of extremely prone to geeking out and basically way in over his respective head re: philosophy and social critique. Mark's basic concern, not in so many words, was that middle-class, privileged dissent in its many modern forms--e.g., eating organic, shopping at American Apparel, straight-edge, PETA, hunger-striking when the university regents cut funding to your marginalized humanities department of choice, &c &c--is either unaware of or unable to reconcile the tension between its Basic Message and its class and privilege, and that the discourse of non-conformity has become a kind of fashion (like, "No-Brand" becoming a brand in and of itself), and that as a result of all that, the Basic Message is cheapened and maybe even morally bankrupt. Anyway, I basically agree with Mark, although the problem is that we've merely dissented against the dissent, and meanwhile big problems are going down around the world.)

Finally, at 7:30AM or so, Aidan and I went back to the hospital to pick up Mark and Dan, the latter of whom was a rag-dollish and sedated mess. He was nowhere near game shape, and it was pretty clear they weren't going to be able to play the show that night. It's to their credit that nobody seemed particularly upset or resentful towards Dan (not that there would've been a concrete reason for that) as a result--I think they were mostly concerned that he was doing okay.

Grayson was asleep the entire time all of this was going down.

TOUR NOTES 6: WARMUPS

TUESDAY, 3-13-07

Besides some noodling around on the pianos and guitars in the house, the band didn't get to play real music for about four or five days. We'd originally planned on getting some bonafide rehearsal time in a studio, but thanks to certain extenuating medical circumstances we had to can that idea and resorted to converting my living room into a practice space.


Did I mention what a crappy photographer I am? I have basically no capacity to take low-light photographs, so this shot of the band doing soundcheck at Safari Sam's is literally the best I can offer as far as performance photography is concerned. I watched most of the show from off stage-right, but from what I could tell, the band were mostly well-received. The LA shows were a little odd because the band had been inserted sort of randomly into lineups featuring bands that sounded basically nothing like them, which can be cool, although it means that the audience might or might not have biases regarding the style of music. It seems only fair that good music would be appreciated in any context, but then what counts as "good" is more or less a totally contextual and subjective thing in itself, and so you're never quite sure what to expect out of the crowd.

TOUR NOTES 7: THE INDUSTRY

WEDNESDAY, 3-14-07

When Mark and I were talking about my prospective participation in So So Modern's US tour, however many months ago, I was pretty adamant about my having some actual, practical responsibilities for the band, especially with regard to live performance issues, but the fact of the matter is that the band doesn't have that many shows scheduled for the time I'm with them, and that they've successfully toured in the past without need for a roadie or a guitar tech. Truth be told I've been pretty self-conscious and wary of the idea that I might simply be a tag-along male groupie. Built into this concern is this assumption that there's a hierarchy of tour-related personnel wherein itinerant fans/groupies are kind of bottom-of-the-ladder and also a little pathetic and lame. I don't mean to say I'm not a fan of the band, but I am really not so invested in their music such that my participation on the tour is sustained by the awe of being among them. But to a certain degree, I think there has to be something like that going on in my head. Sometimes I'll be having a conversation with the guys about instruments or recording or songwriting, i.e., the things that essentially define them as band, and I wonder if I come off sounding ingratiating and sycophantic, like I'm trying too hard to insinuate myself into their milieu, or trying to play up the fantasy that I'm actually part of the band. What's more is that I hardly get to talk to people with as much musical experience as them, and the temptation to ask them sophomoric questions about tedious musical issues is always there. I think as a result of all this I've kind of intentionally avoided trying to satisfy my curiosity, and except for the rare post-performance back-patting, I basically don't talk to the band about their own music at all--for all the reasons above it generally feels kind of distasteful.


So far my practical responsibilities have included driving the band around in my car and helping them set up the gear they've borrowed from me, both of which are only really relevant for the stint in Los Angeles. I've also helped them run the merch table, which I kind of feel is groupie-ish but in reality is probably one aspect of live performance where it's extremely useful to have an extra guy hanging around, to watch stuff and answer questions for passers-by; the disadvantage of this has been that I haven't actually had a chance yet to watch the band perform as a bonafide member of the audience. It'd be good to get a little more familiar with their drum and keyboard setup so I could be more useful during soundchecks, and I have to admit I've got this ambulance-chaser idea in which either Mark or Grayson breaks a string live and so I have to run on stage and perform a 60-second string-change and tune-up (and let's for a minute ignore certain damning contingencies like A) I don't know where they keep their extra strings, B) nobody's got an extra tuner that I could use offstage, and I can't just tune using one of their stompbox tuners while they're performing, and C) one cannot realistically change a guitar string in 60 seconds). All of this wanting to be useful comes less from any sort of restlessness during shows than it does from the simple fear of not feeling or appearing to be useful.


Literally hours before the second (and final) show in LA, we picked up a couple hundred copies of So So Modern's newest release, the seven-track Friendly Fires EP, which is by far their longest record yet and which so far has only been heard by the band and a couple of very generous audience members who attended the Key Club show. If I'm not mistaken, home country fans back in NZ will have to wait until the band gets back, or maybe just until somebody leaks it onto the Internet. I might do everyone a favor and do that myself.

While I took the previous photo, Mark was free-drawing this image of me, which if things keep up as they have been will be the only visual record of me on this tour:



Just before coming to the US, Dan had picked up a classic Gameboy off of TradeMe, which I guess is the NZ equivalent of a Craigslist or eBay. FYI old-school handheld nostalgia is an unbelievable tool for attracting the conversation of strangers male and female, high and low, urbane and parochial. The only requirement is that they be roughly of our generation; let's say anyone aged 21-35 applies. We had a (relatively) decent flow of people stopping by the merch table like hours before So So Modern even got near the stage, and all that thanks to the Gameboy.


Actually I tend to get the impression that the band's arrival in the US was a little underplanned and possibly premature with respect to the release of Friendly Fires. The shows in LA put them in odd venues with odd co-performing bands, mostly disposable and self-dramatic (and, IMO, far less good) Modern Rock bands trying to make it big on the Hollywood circuit. By their own testimony, the guys in So So Modern were happy to get whatever they could get, since after all it was their first time abroad and so the shows had some abstract significance aside from promoting the band's music.

That being said, there'd been some tangible weirdness in playing with mediocre Sunset Strip bands. So So Modern tend to represent themselves as an unequivocally positive musical unit, and if you read their MySpace profile or website, you'll probably pick up a calculated and self-conscious avoidance of overtly self-promotional musical description, for which one might be thankful--bands are generally completely fucking awful at the business of evocative prose. Instead, you get stuff like this:

Hello! Nice to meet you. We are are a four-person collective interested creating a more fun and meaningful future through performance and music. By performance we mean the reciprocal acts of seeing and being seen, and by music we mean the ability to show solidarity around creative aural pleasure. Remember the campfire? Hope you do, cos thats what music means to us. A platform for sharing ideas, stories and gathering. But also a stage for challenges, dialog and what not. Much Love SoSoModern

This is cryptic and playful and I think more than a little savvy and knowing; the rhetorical technique at work here is to A) employ the democratic appeal of music's inclusiveness and catholic breadth, as opposed to making any exclusive claims to individual talent or having discovered some uniquely mind-blowing rock sound that you've never heard before, and B) rely on the fact that inquisitive fans are somehow already aware of the band's sound, either directly or indirectly, since there's nothing said that informs the reader about their music itself--after all, you can effectively demonstrate solidarity through creative aural pleasure regardless of style, whether it be synth-punk, death metal, showtunes, or whatnot.

Anyway, when you talk to the guys in the band, especially Mark and Aidan I think, you will get the sense that they really believe what they say about their mission as a band. But insofar as that's true, I don't necessarily find it to be comprehensively true. For all the high metaphysical talk of music as a unifier, there's a distinct aspect of musical snobbery in their private conversations, and I think they're capable of making negative generalizations of whole genres and eras of music, which (even though I do that myself all the time) strikes me as kind of dogmatic. There's also an overt moralistic tone that the band tends to take towards music, viz., some bands' intentions and purposes are somehow more valid than others, and also a tendency to attribute certain intentions to superficial attributes like musical style; i.e., if your music has the technical attributes of corporate radio rock you're probably going to be accused of having the mercenary motives and artistic vapidity of a corporate radio rock band. I don't say this like it should be surprising or seen as blatant hypocrisy per se, but there's an inconsistency built in there--I don't know if you can talk about music as a "campfire" and then make fun of bands you're playing with (FYI, the photo above is of Grayson and Dan mocking the guitar player of an admittedly bad sissyrock band playing on stage at that very moment). I don't want to overstate my case here: the guys in the band are extremely cool and sincere people, but I have been among less well-spoken and less ambitious musicians who seem more accepting of musical endeavors regardless of motive or style.

But really this conversation is about as old as avant-garde art is itself. Mark opposes such terms "avant-garde" and "art rock" when applied to the band because he's openly (and commendably) opposed to art for art's sake, but I think the term's at least a little bit appropriate when it comes to describing the band's aversion to music as a commercial activity and music that is reptitive and tired and unoriginal. Anyway, if there's a philosophical tension here, it might be result of a kind of post-post-modern growing pains that, if I can go out on a limb here, are being felt by our generation at large--regardless of much lit crit you've read, the 20th-century pomo suspicion towards profit-driven music pretty much suffuses every thought we've got regarding rock n' roll, and now I think there's probably a bit of an awareness that this very suspicion has become an institution and created an exclusivity and elitism of another kind, and hence an intentional repairing back to the campfire. I don't think anyone's got it figured out, but I think Mark and the guys are doing their best.


So So Modern played the final slot at the Key Club. This would be a good thing for a weekend show, but it was a weeknight residency show, meaning the headliner plays second to last, and also that the crowd thins out considerably right after that. After the show we hung around backstage and in the loading lot to chat with some friends, and got a brief but pretty flattering review from the venue's rather jaded-seeming stage manager (if I recall correctly: "Good show. You guys were a pleasant surprise, after all that shit.") On the way home, the band had a surprisingly honest session of debriefing and self-criticism. They actually called each other out by name and said what they thought one guy or another might have done wrong. Lemme emphasize exactly how rare and hard it is to do that: during my own band experiences the best I could do in terms of singling people out for criticism was to tell them their amp was too loud; if there was anything seriously wrong (that is, from a musical standpoint), people losing pitch or rhythm or whatever, I could only use impersonal or first-person plural pronouns, e.g., "Things just don't seem to be working," or "We are kinda losing time at this point, I'm not sure what it is", all of this prefaced by heavy self-effacement such as "I dunno, are you guys hearing this too, maybe it's me that's fucking up", etc. In situations like that, the overlapping fears of conflict and hurting someone's feelings and sounding like an asshole are pretty overwhelming, even (or maybe especially) if you're good friends with the persons you're trying to criticize.

Anyway, after about ten minutes of nit-picking re: the show, the van was mostly quiet--I think only Dan and I were speaking, just talking about America. I couldn't tell if everyone was feeling uncomfortable, or if it was just because they were tired.

TOUR NOTES 8: SOUTH-BY-SOUTHWEST

MONDAY, 3-19-07

My sister Justine got up at 3:30AM to see the boys off; we'd stayed up all night after the Key Club show to get ready for the plane flight to Austin. If you happen to catch her freshly awoken from just a couple hours of her night's sleep, you'll find her mute and extremely automatonic and zombie-like, with her eyes narrowed to slits and head pitched at a slightly downward angle such that she somehow miraculously is able to avoid hitting things when she shuffles around without really looking forward. It took us half an hour more to get the van packed up, and when we actually were set to leave I found Justine lying ventral-side down in pencil-dive posture on the kitchen floor, which position I think she must have been in for at least fifteen sustained minutes. It was very nice of her to send us off.

Actually I was scheduled to fly to Texas several hours after the rest of the guys, so I took the band all the way down to LAX, and then drove back up to the Valley to get a couple hours of sleep. As it turns out I probably should have set my alarm for 7:30 instead of 7:45; what happened was that I got up, packed up my stuff, drove to a gas station to fill up the van's gas tank, called my mom to meet me at the Burbank Airport, hauled ass to said airport to return the van, and then my mom picked me up and drove at such a pace that I arrived at the Van Nuys Flyaway (a sort of suburban bus terminal whose buses go directly to LAX) at like 9:30AM, and there was a bus set to leave at that exact time, but as it turns out it sat at the curb for five more minutes and they still wouldn't let me on; this in turn meant that I had to wait 30 minutes for the next bus, which put me into LAX at say 10:40, and I had to wait fifteen more minutes for the bus to go all the way to Terminal 4, and I got into the American Airlines queue and saw that they had a 45-minute cutoff for checking in; I was taking off at 11:45, which gave me a little over 240 seconds to check in, and believe it or not I was swiping my credit card to check in at literally 11:01 and the machine told me I was too late. I made some immediate but still very polite appeals to the check-in agents behind the counter, and the resulting conversation has led me to believe that you will not find more pitiless and mirth-deprived people than LAX check-in agents coming off the graveyard shift.

I thus had to settle for placing myself on stand-by for a later flight. Not that I was in any particular hurry to get to Austin, but not having a flight securely in hand was pretty nerve-wracking, although I took some solace in the fact that the same bullshitty bureaucratic process would surely have some effect on the number of passengers on the flight I was hoping to get on. And as it turns out, I got onto a direct flight to Austin that actually put me in town five minutes earlier than my original itinerary was supposed to.


Anyway, Austin's much greener than I would've thought, though to be honest my previous concept of what Texas looked like was populated with oil pumps, mesas, tumbleweed, Confederate flags, and basically not much else, and thus not at all any kind of realistic expectation, really. Most often you will hear Austin described as the most liberal town in Texas (an "oasis" according some, who I can guess have some concrete judgments on what the rest of the state's about), an info-tech mecca, a college town, and a place where people are very friendly and smoke a lot of marijuana (which characteristics are generally said to go hand-in-hand). Oh and the music scene is unlike anything I've ever seen: 6th St. is bursting with clubs and bars, and I have to think the liquor-license per square-foot figure is higher in Austin than any other place in the nation, and by a long way; then it seems like every local you run into plays the guitar or writes songs or helps out with a friend's band. They actually block off huge chunks of downtown to through-going traffic during weekends, presumably so that carousers can move point to point without drunkenly staggering into the path of a car or being struck by a drunkenly-operated car.


The first night in Austin I was extremely sleep-deprived and confused, and the events of the evening seemed very bizarre and disjoint, like they were orchestrated by Lewis Carroll and Dali if they were Texan and maybe less so trippy than they were just stoned benignly on Mexican pot. By the time I got into town it was 8PM and very dark, and the shuttle dropped me off in East Austin (sort of the requisite ghetto area that rich cities just seem to have to have) in front of an ill-kept and somewhat serial-killerish house whose porch was littered with cigarette butts and the partial skeleton of what I think was a baby cow or a very large canine. The only light came from behind the curtains of a side room at the front of the house, from a neon sign of some kind. Then Aidan, Dan, and Mark sprung from the back seat of an arriving taxi, the timing of which still strikes me as both serendipitous and really kind of strange. After a brief exchange of greetings, the three of them went immediately to sleep.

At that point I realized I was hungry. I had no concept of where I was and didn't want to hunt around in the dark looking for a restaurant, so I decided to order some food. The house was filled with many things, variously arranged and dusty and speckled with white strands of dog hair, but no phone book I could find; eventually I found the number for a pizza parlor off of an old but suspiciously non-empty pizza box sitting under a bookshelf in somebody's bedroom. This pizza I would eventually share with Emma, the house's obedient and extremely hairy mutt, and then with a house resident called Preston, who'd at some undetermined time returned home and taken a shower, all without me noticing. Preston was wearing nothing but a towel around his waist and spoke in an extreme Texas drawl; he explained that he was originally from Houston and that he'd just gotten laid off from his job. After eating three slices of my pizza he holed away in his room (where both the aforementioned neon sign and suspiciously non-empty pizza box were located) to watch NBA highlights on TV. After this, Aidan/Dan/Mark dragged themselves up and went back into town to watch some bands, and I declined to join them on account of feelings of disorientation.

I was organizing my tour photos and (unsuccessfully) trying to find an unsecured Wi-fi connection when two fellows named Bob and Jesse walked in the front door; they introduced themselves as a house resident and friend-of-house-residents, respectively. They worked at a local hotel and had just gotten off for the day. Bob plays in a local band called The Dirty Sound and is earnestly proud and unembarrassed of the fact, and almost right away he offered to demo his band's recordings for me through the speakers of the living room television. While we listened, Jesse asked if I smoked pot, and when I said I'd never tried it, he seemed a little defeated, like I'd implicitly denied him permission to light up right then and there, for which I felt sorta bad about, but I didn't say anything. Then we talked for twenty minutes about how much Bob and Jesse disliked bums. After that, I remember trying to sleep on a couch covered with Emma's hair (BTW which hair I am still digging out of my clothes and crevasses of my laptop keyboard like four days after the fact, and I have no idea how any of it got there) and being awoken or kept awake by a sequence of progressively weirder distractions, like first Emma skittering around and howling in the grips of some kind of doggie paranoia (she was clearly terrified at something that was not there), and then the So So Modern guys gathering their stuff to take into the RV outside (which they were using as a guest-house), and after that any number of house residents and/or friends-of-house-residents shuffling in and out the front door, including some guy who thought I was Jesse, and I know this because he kept calling me Jesse and shining the screen light of his flip-phone into my face even though I was very obviously trying to appear to be asleep while he was doing that.


Actually the house we were staying at had exactly four proper tenants, Andy, Bob, Jennifer, and Preston, but they are very laid-back about having friends and random musical guests infiltrate their living space unannounced and at all hours of the night. They'd quite generously volunteered to billet So So Modern through some semi-official arrangement with the SXSW administration. The Austin locals living and regularly visiting that house--I personally met maybe a dozen or so and I'm sure there must have been more--turned out to be more or less extremely cool and generous and relaxed people across the board. I have to admit to feeling pretty far removed from their lifestyle and worldview, but either they didn't sense the culture gap, or it just didn't matter to them. They had no airs of urbanity and sophistication. I thought they were aggressively friendly and informal, but in a way that was neither judgmental nor self-conscious, and in general I found them way easier to talk to than all of the cosmopolitanite music industry insiders and fans that I met through the festival itself, who as a whole were kind of Hip and Cool and basically incapable of having a conversation about anything except the hipness and coolness of their past experiences in direct relation to bands and/or the music industry at large, which frankly since I am only peripherally related to such things tended to bore the shit out of me. Plus, there's a kind of psychological distance that West/East coasters and city folk (into which group I would place most of festival-goers) keep around themselves that's refreshingly absent in your average Austin local.


Here's Dan expounding his vision for a new tune, and Aidan surely wishing he had a battery-operated synth or a guitar of his own. What little media coverage of SSM I've found tends to cast Grayson as the leader/frontman, and although he has the most bonafide musical credentials and tends to handle most of the group's business-related matters, I think they operate as a democracy, even with songwriting. Actually I'm not a big believer in true democracy when it comes to music (or politics, for that matter)--I tend to think that someone has to very politely and respectfully assume the driver's seat--but thus far it seems to work out okay for SSM.


This is Dan with a real mammalian vertebra, pretending like it's an alien spaceship. I don't have a video of it, so you'll have to imagine him making machine-gun and engine noises while running around with the goddamn thing in his hand.


Here's an NES that saw a fair bit of late-night use (primarily Super Mario Bros. 3 and Tetris, the NES version of which has no multiplayer option, unbelievably enough) during our stay at the house. The tour has been thoroughly suffused with the presence of video games. I would say we've talked more about gaming than visual art, movies, books, or television; the only subject that comes up more is music, and even then video games still occur prominently: a significant number of bands we saw or talked about demonstrated heavy game-soundtrack/8-bit influence, I'd say including SSM itself.


This comes apropos of nothing: Mark's a big-time lefty idealist, but boy is he down with classic American junk food. If rumors of SSM's medium-term relocation to the US come true, one of their imminent challenges will be to keep Mark from blowing the band's resources (not to mention his arteries) on curly fries and pizza-by-the-slice.


So So Modern had only one scheduled performance, which was on the last night of the festival. There were a few promising leads for playing parties, but those ended up falling through, and in the end we had loads and loads of time to drift around and explore the festival. As it turns out, official SXSW performers (which SSM were) are not automatically afforded access to SXSW events; instead, a single SXSW act (SSM counted as just one) has the option of receiving a single (as in for one person) all-access badge, or the paltry sum of $200, which either way seemed exploitative and unbelievably cheap given that A) most bands stay for four days and put a lot of money into the local economy to feed and entertain themselves, and B) SXSW is, as a whole, nothing less than a titanic subsidy for both local businesses and national marketers of all stripes. SSM had been advised just to take the cash, which at first seemed like a huge mistake, but turned out not to be such a big deal after all, since the band had some connections here and there, and anyways many of the cooler performances occurred at free and unofficial venues that didn't fall under the formal auspices of SXSW itself.


And also, we spent a ludicrously embarrassing amount of time hanging out at The Hideout, a cafe on the corner of 7th and Congress that had decent coffee, breakfast tacos (the very idea of which if you are at all a fan of breakfast and of tacos will quite nearly cause you to blow your anticipatory foodie wad), and most importantly completely free Wi-fi. The guys in the band are computer dorks, and great chunks of our time in LA and Austin were spent assaulting MySpace and Gmail en masse in a laptop huddle. My excuse was that I was trying to write something about the tour, but I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't choose sitting in a cafe and web-surfing over walking around looking for live shows like, say, three times out of five. The others claimed to have been doing band-related communications and catching up with assorted family and friends, but I have a hard time imagining what exactly all that entails and why it'd take at least 90 minutes a day, which I think is a pretty generous lower bound for the amount of time we've spent at our computers.


So So Modern's idea of centering a US tour around their SXSW appearance wasn't entirely original, which meant we'd be running quite often into other New Zealand bands heading gradually eastwards over the course of the trip. There was a rather glitzy showcase show sponsored by the NZ Music Industry Commission, but due to not having a label or not being well-connected or not being stylistically accessible enough, and in spite of apparently being quite popular in Wellington, SSM hadn't been invited to play, and in fact they hadn't been placed on any guest list and technically had no way of getting in. Fortunately, we ran into a girl called Joe (or Jo) who, as far as I could tell, was friends with just about everyone in the Wellington scene, and she played the I-just-flew-ten-thousand-miles card with the guy at the door (who wasn't interested in a fight and probably wouldn't have cared one way or the other) and so all six of us got in without a hitch.


Here's Dan, Joe (or Jo), Grayson, and Nick from Cut Off Your Hands.


The NZ showcase had a crowded tent where bands were being given maybe 15 minutes to play, not really enough time for anything significant, but enough for a properly spectacle-ish background to music industry elbow-rubbing. A good portion of the attendees were well-dressed and wielded wine glasses, and I sort of think that the majority of people occupying the performance tent were primarily there because they were standing in the incredibly long hospitality queue (and free food or not there was no way we were waiting in that line), and only secondarily to listen to the bands play. I'll concede that I tuned out a good deal of this party, for reasons of feeling fairly irrelevant to the scene, and also not wanting to insert my nose into other people's conversations. I believe SSM were there mostly to catch up with old friends.


More by coincidence than out of design, we seemed to run into the same bands over and over again, and I got a tiny bit of exposure to the NZ pop scene, about which I knew absolutely nothing prior to the tour.


I'm most familiar with Cut Off Your Hands (formerly The Shaky Hands, until their arrival in the States and subsequent rights conflict with an identically-named US band), since they played a few dates with SSM in Hollywood prior to South-by-Southwest. Pictured here are Nick and Phil, who incidentally own some pretty rad Tupac and The Chronic t-shirts, respectively. Off-camera are Brent the Drummer and Michael the Guitar Player, whom I had a very long and nerdy conversation re: video games with and who was just about the only non-blues guitar player I've seen in the last week and a half who played a Stratocaster, and might I add he actually digs it. FYI the much-maligned Strat is more or less a pariah in 21st century indie rock--basically everyone plays a Tele or some sort of oddball Fender, like a Jaguar or a Jazzmaster. I think that the Strat's association with classic guitar-wanky music (cf. Hendrix, "God" Clapton &c, i.e., guys to whom I pay all due respects, but still) is basically inescapable, and it occupies this weird and profoundly unhip space of being neither classically retrograde nor satisfactorily obscure. It is ubiquitous, but then not quite proletarian or nostalgic of anything particularly cool. I mean, I play a Strat and I can't help but think it's kind of cheesy and square at times. Anyways.


As far as I could tell, The Mint Chicks were the consensus choice for the hottset shit out of NZ at SXSW. Their style is premeditated to be equal parts edgy and Pop, so it's easy to see why that's the case. Kody, the Mint Chicks' frontman, looks like a darker Jude Law and was probably the most glammy guy I met in our four days in Austin, but nevertheless seemed like a nice guy and even remembered my name (I think) after SSM's set a few days later. I don't mean to disparage their songwriting at all, but the best part of the Mint Chicks' live set is Kody's ability to hurl his microphone out bola-style and then toe-kick it back into his hand, a maneuver which must have taken quite a bit of practice to get performance-worthy.


Andrew, the dude from Die!Die!Die!, played guitar with a broken hand, and when I saw them a second time at a party in East Austin he kept jumping and unapologetically landing on his knees, and by the end of the set he'd distributed not a small amount of his blood across the concrete. Similar tactics for punk-rock performance have been around for ages now, and it's hard to avoid thinking that this kind of thing is at least partly an ironic gimmick, but one really has to give proper credit to any actual spilling of blood.


I actually got away without paying a single cover fee for any of the shows I saw at SXSW. That's probably only possible if you're extremely well-connected, or if you deliberately avoid the big-name performances, which is what we ended up doing.


My favorite band that played at SXSW was Health, an experimental noise group from Los Angeles. They're esoteric enough that it hurts a little to try to describe their sound; Mark called them "a hardcore Animal Collective", which I suppose is about right. Their drummer, BJ, was extremely gregarious and friendly and never failed to make the same dick joke (I'll let you figure it out) when he told people his name. I liked them enough that I actually bought one of their t-shirts, which I basically never ever do. It's also worth mentioning that SSM eventually played their set on Health's gear, which Health loaned to them without hesitation.


Mark's friend Maria's friend Helen took us out to a house party one night, and although I was initially kinda suspicious of the idea, it turned out to be the best musical experience of the festival for me. When we got there, there was a band called Yellow Fever playing pool-side. They played slightly twee pop songs with girl-girl harmonies and chords like Nirvana songs, only without the distortion, in other words the kind of music where it just makes sense that there's a toddler dancing in the foreground while the band's playing.

(And boy have I always wanted to play in band with a co-opted and epithetic and ironically naughty name like "Yellow Fever"--my personal favorite's always been "The Slants"--but I can't get over the fact that it'd call attention to the fact I'm Chinese and somehow insinuate that I was trying to make some kind of meaningful social statement through my music, which, uh, not really. More than anything else, I just think it's funny.)


Very close to the craziest shit I've ever seen was the set by Monotonix, a band from Tel Aviv. I earnestly dug what the drummer and guitar player were doing (big-time, hopelessly outdated 70s-style riff-rock with heavy beats), but their lead singer was transcendently insane and completely stole the show from every band playing that evening. They started their set by mounting pouches of paper onto the drum kit and spraying them with lighter fluid and lighting the drum kit on fire. The lead singer subsequently extinguished the fire midway through the first song by pouring beer over the drum kit while it was still being played. Then he sprayed an entire can of Gilette shaving cream (which afterwards I found on the floor and thought about taking with me, but ended up not keeping because it was pretty gross) on his face and jumped into the crowd and charged after individual audience members. I was standing off to the side and couldn't avert my eyes: it was like watching the most hilarious slow-motion train wreck ever. Anyone standing directly in front of the stage must have been absolutely terrified. Then the singer jumped onto the bar, taking random swigs from bottles on the counter and hurling these little paper cones (the origin and function of which I'm totally unaware, but there was a fuckload of them) all over the dance floor. They closed the show with an extended drum solo during which the lead singer took individual pieces of the drum kit out onto the floor so individual audience members could play along; ultimately the drummer was sitting on the kick drum (which was being held up seven feet in the air by the crowd) playing the snare and crash (which were also being held in the air by the crowd). It's been half a week since then and I still don't know how to make sense of any of it.


After four days of waiting around, SSM finally hit the stage at midnight on the final day of the festival. Although the crowd seemed to really enjoy the show, it was filled with a lot of friends and pre-existing fans, and I'm not entirely sure their SXSW appearance will have a significant effect on their reputation outside of Wellington. While it's already pretty hard for me to make any objective observations, I do think their time will come: I'm pretty hard to impress, but I do believe SSM are a good band, really good even, and not less significantly there's a growing market for bands like them in Credible Hipster Circles; they're exactly the kind of band a Pitchfork writer would drool over grandiosely while name-dropping Derrida and campy 1960s sci-fi within the same sentence.

I had my first and only Roadie Moment during the show when the hi-hat fell over and we had to tape it up hastily between songs. After that, Dan looked me in the eyes and said, "Water. Get me some water."


After helping the band clean up their gear, I left the venue more or less immediately so I could get a couple hours of sleep before my plane flight. Halfway back to the house, I realized I had no cash to pay the shuttle driver in the morning, so I turned around and walked back into town to look for an ATM. After that, I again made it halfway back to the house, only to get a phone call from Grayson, who explained that it was impossible to get a cab downtown and so they had no way of getting the gear back. When I made it back to the house, I asked Preston if he could do me a big favor, and instead of suspiciously looking me over or hesitating (which I think would be most people's response), he just nodded and said, "I might say yes." So we took Preston's surprisingly fancy SUV into town, which by this time was a car-and-pedestrian clusterfuck of epic proportions, and hauled SSM's members and gear off a street corner like so many Saigon embassy airlifts.

When we got back I busied myself with various tasks like arranging bags and getting papers straightened and figuring out the logistics of getting to the airport, stuff so menial and numerous that you lose sleep over them without realizing. At one point I asked Aidan to help me sort through the gear in the back Preston's SUV, and a couple of female friends-of-house-residents who'd actually attended the SSM show followed us outside. I've yet to consult with Aidan about his take on this, but I think they were flirting with us, e.g., at one point one of them said that I very obviously had a Los Angeles accent but she nonetheless found it attractive--she seemed cute and cool but I was some combination of very busy, very tired, very shy, and also very uncomfortable with the whole rock star vis-a-vis groupie and/or sophisticated urbanite vis-a-vis local girl power dynamic that I sensed developing (and maybe only existed in my own head, but regardless) and thus I responded with the male equivalent of batting one's eyelashes, which essentially amounted to such a radically uncharming response as "Oh, why thank you." Period. Anyways, I was leaving in two hours.

I'm not sure if I actually fell asleep that night. I made sure to check in to my flight over the internet, and I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Nevertheless, the unfeeling and humorless and curmudgeonly United Airlines check-in agent nailed me to the tune of $50 for Aidan's synth being 4.5 pounds over the 50-lb limit, which you would think a relaxed Austinite would let fly, especially on the morning after the conclusion of SXSW. One moral of the tour thus far is that one should not fuck with the airline industry, and that if it's not one thing, it's another. Consider yourself warned.

TOUR NOTES 9: THE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

SUNDAY, 3-25-07

Alright, so this is exceedingly cheesy: I've been off the tour for a week now and when I wasn't being a lazy asshole I was letting this cold I got in NYC fester into some crazy flu-metastasis that's given me a new and profound appreciation for those all-in-one nighttime pills you take before curling into your gross and drooly bedsheets. The result's that I never got around to finishing, much less starting really, the gargantuan New York City slash mega tour retrospective slash immense bullshitting on the meaning of rock and roll and its relationship to youth blog entry that I've had in emaciated outline form in this textfile on my desktop that's titled nothing more than "BLOG". But I'll deliver eventually. Photos have been up for a while, and I'll give you what I've got so far, which doesn't quite scratch the surface, but really I need to get to bed and soon.


A day or two before we left Austin I was reassuring everyone that New York would be warm and that they wouldn't have to supplement their wardrobes with new coats and shoes. What I didn't know was that a snowstorm had descended upon New England, one that would eventually result in massive airline delays and some pretty unsavory temperatures. When my plane started to land, I was peering out the window and thinking that we were surely still flying over Michigan: as far as the eye could see (which, from the vantage point of a jet, was pretty damn far), the whole of New York was exactly the same shade of white.

Up close it was a different story. By the time I'd gotten to Brooklyn, the snow was already a few days old, and with the temperature hovering a few points above and below Celsius zero (I guess depending on the position of the sun), it'd been subjected to a process of repeated melting and freezing that left it not so much snow as this persistently disgusting and slippery hardened sludge, peppered generously with chunks of rock salt (not really doing its job so well), street trash, the feces of various animals, and other miscellaneous off-colored urban detritus of undetermined composition and source. As it happens it was also garbage collection day for most of South Williamsburg, so the mounds of grimy ice on the sidewalks were also crowned with an unbelievable number of plastic garbage bags, some half-opened and very gradually evacuating their contents into the street. To my relief the same cold that kept the ice from melting also kept the trash from decomposing too quickly. As such Brooklyn didn't smell like shit; it just looked like shit.


Lemme say that I used to or perhaps still sorta have this complex regarding New York City that actually has more to do with my notions of social hierarchy and my own self-worth than it does with the objective features of the city itself. That's to say that I've always thought that NYC was a little too cool for me, which idea is really just a corollary to my deep suspicions toward people in my age group who speak ravingly about moving to NYC and subsequently having The Time Of Their Lives. In the past these people have included older and more experienced peers, the well-dressed friends of friends, graduate students that not so much carry their single-strapped sidebags as wear them, and very prominently certain girls on whom I'd had naive and yet shatteringly dramatic crushes; i.e., such self-consciously sophisticated, intellectual, and blatantly privileged people that I simultaneously loathe and wish to gain the respect of, or even secretly wish to become. Wanting to move to NYC always seemed to me like a kind of posturing that was both lame and somehow disloyal to one's roots; there is probably some overlap between this and the way townies and rural folk (or in my personal case, suburbanites) canonically despise the natty rich city kids. Anyways this is all complicated shit in my head, tied up with my sometimes puritanical and wholly abstract desire to remain "true to myself", alongside deep-seated fears of failure and being left alone.

The point's that none of this has to do with New York per se. I actually find New York to be pretty awesome and impressive on any number of levels (in fact I was pretty much ready to move out to NYC about a year ago when I was considering an grad school offer from Columbia), like how you can get the best bagel-and-cream-cheese you've ever had for two bucks, how there's folk of all classes and colors wherever you look, how it feels like you have direct access to cutting-edge creative work in every imaginable form (despite the potential obnoxiousness of such a claim), and how people actually seem to be doing things in public, and at all hours--this last bit is not to be underestimated, since to me it's what makes NYC the only true City in the US, with Los Angeles and Boston and San Francisco all having varying degrees of almost-but-not-quite, quasi-cityish bustle and density that never really reach what I experienced in many big Cities across Asia (NB: I haven't been to Chicago, but I suspect my hypothesis still holds). I think New York's the only place in America that compares.


So So Modern as a decision-making unit is both pretty inert and a little scattered, and stuff tends to get arranged and resolved at the very last minute, in "true So So Modern style" according to Grayson. I'd position myself on the lower half of the General Shit-Togetherness scale, but next to the band I'd rank like momishly high-strung. Probably every day during SXSW I would very gently nag the band about living arrangements in New York, offering that my friend Chelsea was willing to put us up for a while, and each time we had this conversation we'd arrive at this weird, non-committal consensus that 1) the band had several options for NYC, and 2) that Somehow Something Would Work Itself Out, but 3) in any case we never quite got around to confirming our accommodations with our hosts. And so by the time I got to New York, I knew only that I was supposed to drop by Mark's friend Tash's place to drop gear off. Where we were all going to sleep was still up in the air. SSM's plane got delayed for three or four hours thanks to the fallout from the weekend's snowstorm, and by the time they got into Williamsburg it was something like midnight; when Mark called I asked him where he was planning on staying, he said that they thought, uh, well, they had hoped to stay at Chelsea's, if that was cool. And it was cool, but only because A) Chelsea and her roommates are themselves extremely cool and easy-going and B) Chelsea happens to be vampirically nocturnal and was awake to let us into her place. We'd had all of these opportunities to give Chelsea & co. the word ahead of time, but we waited until literally the night-of to let them know, and all of this made me a little bit uncomfortable. Bands at SSM's level--i.e., those that aren't floated on corporate money--are in essence parasitic and sustain themselves largely on the good will and hospitality of strangers, and I have to think that it's only good metaphysical form not to take any of that for granted. And here I hope I'm not overstating my case: the band are charming houseguests and are effusively polite, but they have a habit of dropping by unannounced.


So anyways, on that first night Chelsea took us out for a very-early morning trek around the snowy trash-hills of Williamsburg, and eventually we found ourselves dancing to a vaguely faggy mix of Euro-ish beats in a dive bar in the Lower East Side, where (in the bar) according to Chelsea there was a couple of unspecific gender in the women's restroom asking fellow restroom-occupants if it was okay for them to "do it right here" and then (presumably) making good on their intentions.


I would evaluate our first few days in NYC as pretty Fucking Cold; as I mentioned before we weren't really expecting low temperatures, let alone snow, so we resorted to such tactics as plundering Chelsea's extensive scarf collection to keep warm. Above, Grayson's doing an impression of an Eastern European peasant, and I think he rather perfectly approximates the odd and ambiguously strained appearance of your average wind-worn continental herdsman or tiller-of-the-soil of any of the last three or so centuries, the kind of look that could either be rustically cheerful or just abjectly stricken and miserable, but you can never quite decide which it is.


Chelsea shares her apartment with two friends, Karin and Beth, and Beth's affectionately ingratiating cat, Wolf. Wolf apparently has a thing for males and was by all indications completely in love with me, but I was completely allergic to her. As in biologically at first, but then later metaphorically as well. I would wake up in the morning with swollen and crusted-over eyes and grossly irritated sinuses and a tingly full-body itch, and so in spite of her advances I eventually took to nudging Wolf away and turning away from her when she walked in my direction. Sometimes I thought she'd taken the hint, but then like a day later she'd be back, rubbing the side of her body against my leg, which left me like simultaneously revolted and terrified and also a little sad that I couldn't pet her.

TOUR NOTES 10: THE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD II

MONDAY, 4-9-07

In Williamsburg, on Havemayer Street somewhere north of the JMZ line, there's this anonymous building that houses the businesses of local medical practitioners, one of whom's named M. Sack. It's probably always a mistake to think that society has come along far enough that some guy with a sharpie and a refined taste for dick jokes can resist using said sharpie to spot out what naughty double-entendres he happens to come upon in public. One case in point: when I was driving to the Oakland Airport last week I saw a one-way sign that somebody had enhanced with a spray-paint "B" so that the "ONE" read instead "BONE". As such, if you're called Dr. M. Sack, you really ought to know better than to post your name out in the open within arm-plus-sharpie-length's reach, because the sad truth is that you're never going to live down the innuendo that you thought you left behind in high school. It's just not going to happen.


I can't really pin down exact chronological figures, but I'm gonna venture to say that we spent the vast majority of our time stalking around Williamsburg. For me this was a really good thing, and here's why: The typical New York Experience is heavily Manhattan- and skyscraper-centric and has for anyone brought up on American pop myth a pretty surreal and unsettling quality--in my previous visits to New York, I would walk by the Seinfeld diner or Carnegie Hall or the spot in Central Park commemorating John Lennon's life/death or the Empire State Building and I would never know quite what to think except something like "Oh, this place is actually real." I sort of think this is the pure tourist's understanding of a place, in which the sites are so objectified and packed with this weird nostalgia for things you've never experienced for real (and yet you still feel nostalgic for) that you can't help but be let down by the real thing, because the real thing isn't the same thing as what existed in your imagination, nor is its physical manifestation at all tied up with all of the cultural baggage that's associated with it. Maybe let down is the wrong word for it. I guess it's more that you really are impressed, but it's the kind of impressed-ness that comes as a result of this feeling like you ought to be impressed by it all.


So the practical advantage of not carting oneself from Impressive Building X to Museum Y and then to Broadway Show Z is that you have a lot of time to walk around in the cold or sit in a cafe for an entire afternoon and basically do nothing. When we were in New York I developed an impulse-purchase habit for semi-junky food and drink like everything-topped bagels with cream cheese (which I kind of overdosed on because they are in retrospect way too salty with all that stuff on it) and cafe mochas and/or coffee products of any kind and doughnuts and the sensational blended strawberry milk sold at this ambiguously Latino bakery called La Bonita.

I recently talked with a former New Yorker about NYC artistic communities, and his account of Williamsburg as NYC's gentrified bohemia du jour had distinct after-the-fall overtones, as if things have gotten softer and less edgy since the passing of some golden era that might be the 60s or 70s or 80s depending on who's doing the wistful reminiscing. Talk like that is always a little suspicious because of how self-congratulating it seems (e.g., "I was there when things were real", etc.), but then maybe you can see his point a little: Wiliamsburg is as pure an example of a Hipster neighborhood that you will ever see. It's kind of hard to pin down an objective definition of what exactly a Hipster is, since the tastes and fashions chance so quickly, but at any given moment it always feels like there's a concrete, pre-packaged aesthetic that everyone's ordering from a catalog and subsequently using to decorate their respective art spaces and record shops and vegan cafes with.

Chelsea and I had a long and rambling conversation about it as we walked through town, and eventually settled on some rough concept of Hipsterdom as first and foremost a form of conspicuous consumption, although I'm not really sure how far we got with that. If nothing else, "hipster" is a pejorative, and so nobody you ever meet will ever self-identify as a "hipster". Conversation while in Williamsburg was rife with sarcastic jabs at hipsters, to the point that Mark actually said something to the effect of "Well, hipsters aren't really so bad", and you just know the contempt is thick when somebody feels the need to apologize for it. But I'm also tempted to believe that making fun of hipsters is itself an identifying trait of a hipster--that's to say it sorta takes one to know one, and that I guess I shouldn't act surprised if somebody accused one of us of being a hipster him/herself. Let's remember that we were, after all, having such fun romping around Brooklyn with our skinny jeans and scarves and variously worthless liberal arts degrees, reminiscing (with infinitely regressive irony) about the 80s and drinking coffee and talking about music and film and how awesome it is or would be to live in Japan or Germany.


As with SXSW, the NY leg of So So Modern's US tour originally had only one show penciled in. Thanks to the free play of networking the likes of which I'd never seen prior, the NY schedule blossomed into some half-dozen sets, plus one or two guest DJ sets and a few sets for Grayson's solo stuff. Partly this was a geography thing, since a lot of the industry insiders that the band knew personally were based in New York, and since the city also happens to have a staggering number of formal and informal venues for bands to play in. I have to reiterate that the success in booking and logistics during the NY stint was mostly the result of people performing favors and other random acts of kindness for the band. I'm not quite sure how to explain it, although I suspect this is the way it happens for any band touring on its own dime.

(It might or might not be worth mentioning the weird expression of gender politics that I think I saw going on: every one of the immediate contacts that went on to arrange things and find stuff for the band was female, and so I'm forced to speculate that the band's charms and NZ cache and/or Commonwealth accents had something to do with it. It may be that that sort of work just happens to be more appealing to females, or that females are just better suited to its core competencies (which are basically to be really patient, organized, high-strung, and hip all at the same time, and to be really nice most of the time but also to be able to flip a switch and kick some ass when it's ass-kicking that is needed), or there's some kind of glass ceiling at work that keeps the ground-level logistics of the music industry a disproportionately female affair. Maybe I'm just smoking crack. Also not as interestingly but just FYI, the people that ended up loaning stuff to the band, i.e. gear and vehicles, were all male, but they'd all been reached indirectly, through said females.)

One huge and potentially tour-saving coup came in the form of Chelsea's friend Brit's beat-up white Suburban, which was loaned to us at minimal cost and complaint. The Suburban had Brit's U of Colorado stickers attached and looked like it had been driven across the length of America and through all of its varied climes and terrains, and several times over. The rear-view mirror on the driver's side had at some point been socked a good one and was more kaleidescope than driving aid. There was an ancient tape-deck adapter with a quarter-inch jack and the sound coming from the speakers had that weird treble/bass imbalance you get when the stereo signal is messed up somewhere along the line. Brit took special pains to instruct me on how to jimmy the rear gate with a screwdriver he kept in the drink holder up front for that specific purpose. There was room for five to sit comfortably and it fit all of SSM's gear more or less exactly. Aside from the assassinatingly shitty mileage and the poor aesthetics of referring to the Suburban as a band "van", I would say it was perfect for our purposes.

Now when I say "perfect" though, I mean "perfect" in a kind of fits-the-experience way, not "perfect" as in chick-magnet and/or Car Practically Drives Itself and/or GPS-navigation with computer-mediated-climate-control or some such nonsense; actually operating the thing took some getting used to and led to some of the more intense experiences of the tour. Note that driving anywhere in the general vicinity of the Williamsburg Bridge on either side of the river is a clusterfuck par excellence, one of one-way streets and concomitant forced turns, and then of extremely creative and unpredictable traffic direction and obstruction by members of the New York Police Department, and let's not forget the tiny unreadable street signs (if it means anything to you, I repeatedly almost missed Bowery coming off of Delancey and vice-versa) and general lack of parking spaces and constant road construction and good lord the derring-do and overall balls of NYC motorists and pedestrians alike. After the three or four days of maneuvering through Brooklyn and south Manhattan in a car possessing roughly the size and demeanor of a triceratops, you're either going to be very competent or very dead. At this point virtually no aspect of Southern California driving scares me, and it very recently amazes me that anyone could have a bad word to say about LA traffic at all.


I can't remember for sure, but I think Day 1 in the Suburban was also the same day that SSM was scheduled to perform their one pre-booked gig, in the Lower East Side at the Lit Lounge, which was a weird juxtaposition of cave-like performance space and frou-frou art gallery. I think Mark could already sense a tension building between me and the car and the streets of New York, and so he bought me a chicken kebab dinner before the show.

The Lit Lounge was fun but also terribly annoying (I thought) from a performance perspective. First of all, the floor plan consisted of a long, skinny rectangle with the stage and the make-shift green room residing on opposite ends, thus requiring before and after the set that we to ferry gear back and forth along the entire length of the premises, and this while it was jammed with patrons. The stage was tiny and one corner of it was actually somehow not attached to the rest of it, and it would wobble perilously and unbalance mic stands and generally terrify anyone within view of the band's feet. Despite this the band seemed to have a good time, perhaps due to Dan's not feeling stoned on antibiotics, and also a terrific crowd atmosphere that I did not at all see except for passing glances while I was shooting the possibly incompetent sound guy the look of death, which I am 100% certain he could not see. Either the owner or the floor manager was sufficiently impressed with SSM's performance that s/he invited them back at later dates for not only another performance but also a DJ set, both of which gigs s/he (the owner or floor manager) subsequently completely forgot about and left SSM sorta high and dry and forcing them to cancel the DJ thing completely and then truncate the second show to like 15 minutes, which, for what it's worth, apparently turned out to be really high-energy and cool.


There was a bonafide dance party after the bands stopped playing that was filled with the requisite goofiness and homoerotic grinding, mostly perpetrated with pneumatic enthusiasm by Dan (and I think maybe sometimes Aidan, because he and his groin are tall) upon basically everyone on the dance floor. Then we loaded all of SSM and Cut Off Your Hands (who'd played IMO one of their best shows that I'd seen of them despite my contempt for the venue at large) and also myself and our new NY acquaintance Rachel to whom we'd offered a ride into the Suburban--all in all, ten people, mostly drunk, and the gear of two bands. For an abstainer who moves frequently in the company of lushes, expats, and most recently rock bands, I am stupendously untalented at putting up with the behavior of drunk people, and I tend to greet all the silly good will with constipated smiles and humorlessness and am pretty consistently a fucking asshole about it, which maybe comes from the fact that I am jealous that I don't seem to be having as a good time and am somehow missing out (now see if that isn't the classic unavoidably self-fulfilling train of thought).

Anyway, the carful of people was actually not so bad and maybe even secretly fun for me; instead I waited until after maybe half a dozen navigational mishaps on the trip home to go absolutely apeshit. I think it was when we were just off the bridge into Brooklyn and I realized we had no way of getting off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway from the inside lanes of the bridge (which as I later learned were labeled as such, but only past the point where you no longer had the choice, fuck you very much) and I was looking into rear-view mirror trying to change lanes and I couldn't see a goddamn single thing in it, and I proceeded to emit a reasonably coherent stream of mezzo forte profanity, which tirade I think fairly well scared the crap out of the band, and for the rest of the ride they were mostly quiet, a kind of brows-raised Holy Shit quiet. To add insult to insult, no later than 3 minutes after we'd entered Brooklyn, I took a tactically-disastrous forced right turn, which immediately took us back onto the bridge and into Manhattan; had their been tolls involved I probably would have driven the van right through the gate.


I'm hoping to have this wrapped up once and for all in the next post. This is so late it's getting embarrassing!

TOUR NOTES 11: THE END

SUNDAY, 4-29-07

This is absurdly fucking late. Sorry.


A day after the Lit Lounge show and associated near-road rage, Mark was eager to relieve me of the Suburban and test his driving chops with the trip to Asbury Park, NJ due for that evening. In fact he insisted. I felt a little bad about this, partly because I took it as if my psychological fitness as band driver was being implicated, which in light of certain flippings-out was fairly justified. Nevertheless I was pretty apprehensive about dropping Mark cold into the driver's seat, no less to face the unfiltered shitstorm that is commuting in New England. But in the end I worried more about being a dick about it, so I let him drive. All things considered, Mark did a pretty good job, taking us through Newark and navigating the Garden State Parkway through the rain with little to no help from the Suburban's unsurprisingly dysfunctional left windshield wiper or crunched rear-view mirror. That notwithstanding there were a few moments of handle-grabbing terror, that may or may not have been exaggerated by my fundamental unease with letting an unseasoned Kiwi drive on the right side of the road in a car in which I happened to be sitting shotgun (i.e., prime ejection-through-glass territory); these occurred mainly during lane changes and intersection traversals that require you to be used to passers on the right and cross-traffic coming in from a direction appropriate to Western hemisphere motoring.

In Jersey City we picked up a friend of the band's named Maria, a music publicist and manager who spoke Italian and said she was the world's biggest fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation (which is impossible because I know what a bussard collector and a Heisenberg compensator are, and would probably be an instructor for intensive Klingon language courses if I hadn't been forced to attend to college). Then we drove southbound for maybe two hours and wandered around some anonymous coastal suburb of the state of New Jersey, stopping by a gargantuan 99-cent store for directions and a cheap can of regular-flavored Pringles. This put us in Asbury Park around maybe 8PM. The gig was at an extremely cool and yet extremely empty and unpatronized bowling alley called Asbury Lanes, which I remember had extremely weird flushing mechanisms attached to the urinals in the men's bathroom, viz., spring-loaded, twist-action knobs that creeped the hell out of me. While the band wasn't getting paid, the house did comp us free diner-style meals of curly fries, orange pop, and grilled cheese sandwiches, the novelty of which was not lost on any of us, especially after three straight weeks of getting way more drink tickets than our kidneys could handle.


They also let us bowl for free. Bowling for me is like what dancing and singing are for most Americans: a supposedly fun, extroverted activity that is in reality totally terrifying, exactly because you are supposed to be having a good time but you suspect everyone is judging you by your skills, and then, because you're feeling self-conscious, you really are in danger of not having a good time, and worse, looking very obvious to everyone around that you're feeling self-conscious, and in essence seeming like a ninny and/or poor sport. But historically speaking, I am the world's greatest bowling catastrophe, and it takes a great deal of irony and preemptive apologizing for impending gutterballs for me to get over myself. I have a natural tendency to chuck the ball out from my center, as opposed to out from my side, so the ball's trajectory is already bad on release and requires an extremely finessed counter-spin and a good deal of speed to reach any pins at all. What's silly about my concerns, though, is that most of us were varying degrees of awful at bowling. At one point Dan cranked his pre-swing up too far and too fast, and the ball had more inertia than his feet, and so he fell over literally heels over head. We just laughed at him. I'd never seen anything like it. Grayson, however, was some kind of machine at the game, so routinely going for eight or nine pins on his first attempts and then cleaning up the dregs on his seconds that we accused him of practicing (and, I think, demonstrating the world view that one can only be either 1) a shitty bowler or 2) a nerd who prepares his bowling skills to impress and ultimately dominate his friends). I stopped bowling after a point when the first band came on, although somehow I was the only one weirded out by the idea of playing sport like fifteen feet away from a band we were supposed to be performing with; for whatever reason it occurred to me that it was dismissive and nonchalant in a way that hanging out in the green room or at the bar (both typical activities when you are not actually into the bands you're performing with) are not.


When SSM went on stage there were exactly the following people listening: me, Maria, the guy who made us grilled-cheese sandwiches, some people way across the bowling alley in the bar, the sound guy, and the other band plus what appeared to be their girlfriends (some of whom were bowling, although despite what I said above I didn't take it personally or anything). It was a strange show and I suppose a little disappointing in spite of the general coolness of the venue, and the band wrote the gig off as free dinner and rehearsal time.

On the way out the door there was a bit of controversy when it became clear the Mark intended to drive us back to New York. There was this pretty uncomfortable exchange in which Dan told Mark that while it had indeed been very "fun" (Dan's own term) when Mark drove down, it would be "even more fun" if I were to drive everyone back instead. It was extremely well-meaning and conciliatory but also detectably insincere, and so Mark stuck to his guns. Then Maria said flat-out that she didn't feel safe with Mark behind the wheel (something to the effect of "I insist on living!", an ouch-class rejoinder to my prior "I'm not gonna insist on driving..."), which I guess was honest but made me wince, in part because of the directness of it, and also because I felt that as the favored driver I was kind of involuntarily complicit in hurting Mark's feelings. At that point, Mark got pissed off and said he was just trying to spare me some trouble and felt like nobody was helping him out. I insisted that it really was all OK and took an oath of good behavior and no profanity for the drive back up, which after all of that was predictably weird and awkward. Yet again we took a series of wrong turns in south Manhattan and ended up in the wrong part of Brooklyn, and then when we got to the right part of Brooklyn we spent at least thirty excruciating minutes looking for an unadorned stretch of kerb long enough to fit the Suburban. On the way out of the car, Grayson dropped the band phone into a melted-snow puddle of impressive scale and grossness, and then somehow I managed to drop the car keys into the exact same spot, and so we spent a little while fishing around in the puddle with our bare hands.

That night we had no way of getting into Tash's apartment, where we'd been storing the gear, which meant that we'd have to leave all of the band's equipment in the car and furthermore that somebody would have to spend the night in the car as a human theft deterrent. Mark immediately volunteered for the job. After going back to Chelsea's place briefly to get Mark's stuff, Grayson and I walked Mark back to the car. It was a cold night, and when we left Mark at the Suburban and turned back, I was feeling tired and guilty. Actually I think that was rock-bottom for the tour for me.


The next day I got up at the brutally early hour of 9AM to return a borrowed amp. The morning traffic consisted of school buses and loading trucks and taxis and about 10 consecutive blocks of Hasidic Jews darting into the street and standing outside of brick warehouses. Along the way we passed by what was purported to be the childhood residence of deceased rapper Biggie Smalls. After this I left alone to eat with Chelsea in Manhattan, and then I scurried back into Brooklyn in the evening for a loft show that the band had somehow contrived an invitation to play. Really this was the pattern of the rest of the half-week I had in NYC, despite all of our vast and varied ambitions to visit art museums and see the musical rendering of Raimi's Evil Dead and eat loads of pizza (of which I ultimately ate only a single mouthful that I stole from Dan). We'd more or less locked ourselves into a routine of waking up way too late, going our separate ways for what was left of daylight, and reconvening in a rushed fashion to get the gear and car ready for a show.


The loft of said loft show was apparently someone's actual residence and very hip indeed but none of us were particularly impressed, and after So So Modern played we ended up trickling in one by one into the room where all of the bands' equipment was being stored. For a while we shared that room with this one bizarre guy who said nothing to us but didn't quite ignore us either, and so this was awkward and perhaps even a bit creepy. After him was a guy called Matt who was the drummer for a band called The Fugue, and it later came out that he was also no less than the latest drummer for Asobi Seksu, which thus made him the highest-profile musician I met on tour. While conversing with him I specifically avoided mentioning that I thought AS's music was kind of boring and a Category-3 let-down given the amount of indie-media hype over them, and that I thought such hype was almost certainly a result of the lead singer being very ostentatiously a Japanese Female and very obviously aware of what advantage that brought her vis-a-vis an audience all too willing to pass off exoticist fetishism as some kind of aesthetic sophistication (which just stop me right now), although not bringing any of this up was very difficult, because Matt was actually very matter-of-fact and cool about his lot in life and seemed like he saw things for what they were.


Grayson's manager Emily lived in town and had him booked for a couple of solo sets during the stint in NYC,. These shows were ultimately attended by little more than myself and one or more members of SSM and what turned out to be a rather decent-sized (relatively speaking), all-female contingent of SSM and/or Grayson Gilmour friends-cum-groupies (primarily the former, but very arguably the latter as well), and then also a paltry smattering of unrelated hipster riffraff--all in all a weird dynamic. Grayson had a tendency to blow through his sets with a witticism inserted here and there between songs ("You might have heard this one before" was his introduction to his cover of Weezer's "Buddy Holly"), and often ended his songs by smashing his left hand against like ten or so of the low-octave keys--either he'd sorta picked up that he didn't have anyone in the crowd that he really needed to impress, or he's fundamentally self-conscious about all the false drama and gravitas that seems automatically to go along with performing solo piano ballads.

At one point the scheduling of these solo sets happened to conflict with a certain potential SSM gig in Philadelphia. Philly was a geographical long shot, but I could tell Grayson was pretty resistant to the idea of canceling his set regardless. That was understandable, but in any case it made me wonder about the nature of his relationship to the band, given that at present his solo work appears to be both more lucrative and more widely-received than what SSM has thus far been able to achieve. I asked him about it once, and it seemed to not be a big issue to him. The rest of the band barely talks about it, and there isn't quite a 500-pound gorilla vibe that you would expect to see in a situation like that, so I'm not sure what to think.


Among those previously-mentioned NYC friends of the band were Karin (who not incidentally is Chelsea's roommate and whose bed I slept in twice, although not with her but rather once with Dan and Wolf The Affectionately Allergenic Cat, and Mark another time) and Rachel, both of whom worked shifts at the Knitting Factory and had colluded to score SSM a set on a Sunday night. That show ended up being my last for the tour, and it conformed to the pattern of US metro shows played alongside anonymously emo-ish local bands who were, in as kindly objective terms as I can muster, nowhere near as good as SSM. What was neat for me was watching Rachel work the mixing console, from which she would occasionally glower and shake her head at guitar players who'd turned their amps up too loud.

I was running the merch table after the show when I was approached by a blonde girl who I at first believed was very friendly but soon realized was quite drunk. I sold her a CD for ten bucks, and then she kept trying to sell it back to me for five bucks and a copy of SSM's press sampler, and this after she'd removed the liner from her CD and gotten a couple SSM guys to sign it and successfully mangled it with her drunken fingers. It took me maybe a full minute to figure out what she was trying to say to me, and the entire time Karin (herself a true tour-support pro) was giving me that knife-cutting-throat gesture, but what was I supposed to do? At one point the blonde girl said, "Here, this is what I want you to do," and she took a pen out of my hands and drew upon my tally sheet a picture of what I think was a flower with more equally-size flowers growing fractally from its petals. Finally Dan came over and let her take a sampler, and she staggered away. She left a half-full bottle of beer at the merch table. Anyway I found it all pretty scary.


I spent three weeks with these guys:


Aidan Leong is half-Chinese and half something else I didn't bother asking about. One of the prime subplots of the tour was sneaking Aidan into various 21-and-over establishments because until literally days before I left NYC he was not yet 21. As it turns out our tactic was to give him Mark's NZ driver's license (Mark himself could use his passport) and this somehow worked every time; I'll give the door guys in question the benefit of doubt and say that instead of being unable to discern people of fully- and mixed-Asian lineage, they simply did not give a fuck about rigorous enforcement of the US legal drinking age.

Aidan very articulately explains that he is concerned about the incompatibility and potential irreconcilability of his musical concerns and his university degree, which was earned through a semi-vocational program in radiation therapy. He worries that if he pursues music for the next X years of his life, he'll be left behind by the rapidly-changing field of medical technology and thereby rendered unemployable. Apparently this is something the others in the band worry about as well, as if Aidan's Career and So So Modern are mutually exclusive objects, a concern which strikes a third party as both completely understandable and also way overstated, since after all we should not be so narrow as to have our lives dictated by our respective undergraduate degrees.

From what I gather, Aidan thanks people a lot. He is always thanking the crowd between songs and is always thanking everyone who gives him the slightest provocation to thank them. Outwardly he is quiet and sweet. I think he must be the most aggressively considerate of the guys in SSM. Maybe that's a function of him being so goddamn young, although that's probably a little too convenient an explanation. That notwithstanding, Aidan's method of demonstrating platonic intimacy is through dudely uncouthness: the way you know you're in with him is when asks you in post-ironic fashion if you're some kind of fag or homosexual or something, and gives you this extremely harsh and intense look. Apparently it's his habit to disappear for long periods of time wandering on his own, and also to be suspiciously evasive about any potential romantic entanglements of his, and these are traits that were described directly to me by other members of the band and more or less confirmed through my own observations during the tour. When Aidan told me he was going back to Germany after the US Midwest tour, I immediately asked him if it was about a girl, and he only replied, "How is it that everyone seems to know that?"


Daniel Nagles never has a quiet moment; either he is in the middle of cracking a theatrically elaborate joke (often necessitating grotesque full-body gestures) or expounding lengthily on something that he finds deeply profound. Out of his fellow band members he's the only one I'd describe as truly extroverted. He has a particular combination of stubbornness and recklessness and genuine curiosity and raw energy that for all intents and purposes makes him jinxed. That's to say that he is always slightly screwed, either running late or losing his wallet or missing the bus or doing something crazy and possibly illegal in front of bored cops or something.

Despite that Dan's both extremely funny and extremely fun to be around, there are times I think the guys in the band are laughing at him rather than with him. Dan's too-dead-to-be-deadpan soliloquies on history and culture and DNA helices and how it would be cool if There Was A Movie About A Subway Train That Was Actually Some Satanic Species Of Gigantic Snake are semi-coherent and wandering and extremely verbose and often just plain nonsensical to everyone but him, and are thus frequently dismissed and mocked, which Dan himself takes with such superb equanimity that I wonder if he's even aware he's being dismissed or mocked. It might be simpler to say that he just doesn't care either way. But there is something a little sad about not being taken seriously when you are so obviously saying something that you take very seriously, or at least when you are trying very hard to express to others what you have in mind.

And yet I still don't really worry about Dan, because he's easily the most gifted person in the band, viz., as far as I can tell, he is always basically happy. Once I was carrying someone's guitar case or synth case or whatever, to the car or something, when Dan came up to me and said, "Well Jeff, you gotta meet my girl back home." And I said, "Why?" "Because she's great," was Dan's reply. That was the sum of the conversation.


A weird thing about Grayson Gilmour is how he's generally the one kicking people's asses about paying attention and staying on schedule, and how he's fastidious and even skinflinty about the band's finances, but then outside of the practical realm he's the generally least focused on the moment in any given situation. Grayson is distinctly haunted by two things: A) music and B) the prospect of living somewhere where he doesn't speak the language. When we went to museums he would discuss not art but the new delay pedal that he bought; when we passed by all the various sights of New York City, he had his nose in a German language survival guide. And then he has the classic introvert's habit of saying extremely little among his non-familiars, and then being the loudest when he's among his close friends, and also the classic smart-ass's tendency of using humor to express what is in fact his genuine disapproval, as well as to reveal, inadvertently, his own insecurities. Really I felt like I had a lot in common with him.

One night after one of the NYC shows, we headed out to a party where we were meeting Tash, who was supposed to give us a key so we could again stash the band gear at her place. Aidan had already left to meet a friend in Manhattan. When we got to the building where the party was, Mark and Dan immediately took off to check out the party, while Grayson and I elected to wait in the Suburban. We spent like five or ten minutes watching the entrance to the building. After a while we started making up cruel dialogue for the people coming or going or lingering outside. Me, nerd voice: "Look at this fucking tool, he's like 'I'm a graphic designer, I really think New York's a great place to step up my career.'" Grayson, watching a guy walk away from the party, Americanesque grumbling: "Fuck this party, it fucking sucks." And so on and so forth. I guess we were mostly kidding, but if we were laughing, then I have to think it was also a little painful, as with a kind of punk's contempt and punk's envy built into the experience of watching something in which we'd explicitly chosen not to participate and yet found impossible to ignore.


Back at UC Berkeley's I-House, Mark Leong and I turned out to be pretty good roommates, tolerant (at the very least) of one another's music, both fans of comic books and guitars, and similarly prone to laughably uninformed armchair cultural criticism and rampant idealism and self-righteousness (although he in a relentlessly positive manner and me in a depressed cynical manner). I find it strange how he and I are never quite dudes in each other's company; our conversations tend to be dourly epic, always about morals and choices and society and the essence of things, and are generally at least 75% Bullshit, but I think while they're happening we genuinely dig it. If we're joking around, it's never so much silly or relaxed as it is a mutual attempt to be witty. In any moment we're interacting, one of us is either existentially or romantically mid-crisis and clearly eager for the attention of someone who's willing to sit through an over-articulated and self-conscious account of said crisis. Truth be told I sometimes worry that we take ourselves too seriously among one another, since in other contexts we are each shown to be much more crass and dude-like. Does that mean we secretly fear the other's judgment? Or is it just that we are both game to nerd it up at the first sign that a second party wouldn't mind, and we just smell it in each other? Either way, I think it's probably best that in the future we take every opportunity to do stuff like dance together to bad techno--those moments seem to be the ones when we're most uninhibited with respect to one another. I've kept him touch with him for four years, which, in context, is rare and counts as a really close friendship, one of very high mutual esteem, but we seriously need to chill the fuck out.

One semi-intentional consequence of this notion is that I've recently gotten into the habit of affectionately laughing at Mark behind his back with the other SSM guys. So having an identifiable crew of mutual friends definitely helps. In any case it comes from the awareness of the things about a person that both impress us and disappoint us, and also the recognition that those things are pretty much always inseparable, or perhaps facets of the same basic trait. Mark's always been philosophically unified, at least by all outward appearances: he finds moral significance and intellectual connectedness in everything that he reads and the things that he does. Occasionally this rings highfalutin and/or self-contradictory, but it's also exactly what makes me respect and envy him. Despite my best efforts I'll always harbor fears that the path to enlightenment or self-realization or whatever the fuck is jagged and awful and full of disappointment. And it's not that Mark's without his doubts, but it seems to me that he's convinced, deep down, that there's a right way to run one's life, and that he'll find it eventually, and that he'll have a really good time looking for it. I don't nearly have that kind of confidence.


As recently as maybe eighteen months ago I was still deeply uncomfortable with the idea that I wasn't meant to be a rock star other such musician of note. That sounds pretty silly, but that was really much more of an unwillingness to accept the idea that there were generic limits to what I could accomplish with my life, i.e., up until I was 25 or so I basically saw no line between fantasy and true conceivability. Nowadays I thrash slightly less when I entertain the possibility that I won't ever attain certain chimeras such as widespread musical renown and credibility. Partly that's the necrosis of youthful optimism expressing itself, and that's really not a point any young person should ever be eager to reach--I tend to think growing up is an accumulation equally of fear and apathy as it is of reason and knowledge. But the other thing I've come to accept is that vocation and/or avocation don't necessarily equate to a clear identity, and furthermore that clarity of identity doesn't equate to happiness. That's to say that I think it's an unambiguously good thing to realize that A) what you do as a job/hobby doesn't come nearly close to defining who you are, and that B) being able to claim definitively and unselfconsciously that you're a musician or a writer or a doctor or whatever does not, in and of itself, represent satisfaction, self-knowledge, or the passing of other such spiritual milestones.

The SSM tour was then useful for assuaging a kind of guilt I felt about my waning musical ambitions. For one thing, much of the gruntwork of touring is exceptionally tedious and occasionally nerve-wracking, and even when it is stressful, it is still the same shit you had to deal with before, time and time again. The human aspect can also be numbing, with so much audience enthusiasm amounting to so little in the way of real relationships. Having logged three and a half weeks on a rock tour, I feel fairly convinced that my life could be complete without a brutal regimen of performing here and there with a half-ton of musical gear on my back.

But on the flip side, touring also has its oases of acute and very intense thrills (especially if you are the performer as opposed to the roadie), and it is above all other concerns a terrific adventure, so long as you are lucky enough to have the company of people who are your friends. Here's what I've always said, and what I think I can only now say with any kind of true sympathy: it would be good to be a rock star for a year. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be cut out for it past that point.


I have neglected to mention these things:

  • Once near the end of the LA leg of the tour, me and Dan and Aidan and Mark went to a music store in San Fernando to pick up some DIs and a snare skin. The place was full of imitation gear, e.g. Fernandez's instead of Fenders, and all these savvy little signs comparing the store's prices to those of online discounters. Just as we were turning to leave, the guy behind the register stopped us deliberately to inform us that his store had indeed been used as a set for the guitar store scene in Wayne's World. He then took us into a back chamber in which he'd erected a small shrine of Wayne's World paraphernalia; in addition to the actual "NO STAIRWAY" sign and the actual "May I Help You?"-riff guitar, he also had numerous Wayne and Garth bobble heads and photos of Mike Meyers that I am quite certain had nothing to do with the actual filming of the movie.

  • Grayson's sleeping bag had a large hole at the bottom, enabling him to walk around while wearing his sleeping bag like a full-body nylon condom. This is how he spent his most of his mornings on tour.

  • Apparently the Suburban broke down immediately after I left New York, setting in motion an episode of high drama involving parking tickets, tow trucks, and nervous politics with Brit, the owner of the Suburban. As it was related to me, Brit turned out to be unbelievably nice about the whole thing and paid for the repairs himself, and even took the guys to the airport on their last day in NYC. It was further related to me that 30 minutes into that trip to the airport, somebody in the band suddenly realized that they were headed to the wrong airport, which precipitated a frantic re-routing and I guess a ton of profanity.

  • The Kinko's on 5th St. (or was it 4th?) in Austin, like other Kinko's around the nation, sucks profoundly. It cost me a full dollar and like nearly half an hour just to print out the PDF plane ticket I had on Dan's USB key.

  • Despite the whole myth of rock n' roll being a sexually-charged affair, the tour as a whole was only as debauched as any mundane gathering of friends, and for a fully-fledged Rock Tour and international jaunt it was disappointingly puritan. We gave Mark and Aidan loads of shit for talking to the occasional girl post-show, but I think we were just trying to create some drama. I did have a semi-platonic and low-intensity crush on exactly one of the army of female characters we encountered on tour. I am being discrete and coy about it because if I weren't, it would be so boring as to not even merit my mentioning it; in other words, I am just trying to create some drama in saying so.

  • On a side trip I went to up to Harlem to eat at Silvia's, purportedly the most famous soul food restaurant in NYC. As one might expect from the most famous soul food restaurant in NYC, Sylvia's is blatantly self-promoting and basically soulless, despite that it facilitates such near-surreal experiences as my sitting with a tableful of church-going Asian kids expatriated from the suburbs of Los Angeles and Dallas and being serenaded by a MIDI-accompanied chanteuse who patrolled the restaurant singing "Amazing Grace" and asking where each group of customers was from; when we told her we were from California and Texas she said into the mic, "California and Texas IN THE HOUSE!!!", and when some other table told her they were from Norway, she said into the mic, "Norway's IN THE HOUSE!!!", and so and so forth. I noticed with geeky displeasure that she used the same melismatic descending phrase when she sang the names of certain birthday-celebrating patrons during her extended table-to-table run of "Happy Birthday", i.e., she would sing "Dear Daaaaaaaave" with the same basic rhtyhm and melodic content as "Dear Melissaaaaaaa", and FYI that's not very soulful when that happens like half a dozen time in a row.

  • I think this is the only group photo I took with the band. Before the shot, I said, "Okay everyone, let's do the humorless rock star look!" which apparently nobody heard or understood: