In his seminal 1994 memoir, Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, Henry Rollins writes about being 18 and going nowhere fast – managing a Häagen-Dazs and playing in a dissolving hardcore band in DC.
Obsessed with Black Flag, he catches the band every time they come to town, screaming along to every word. After finally getting invited onstage to join them for a song, Rollins finds himself on a plane to Los Angeles and crowned the band’s new singer just one week later.
Despite being one of the most popular hardcore bands at the time, Black Flag lived in absolute poverty, all while under the constant threat of having their DIY shows shut down. They faced constamt animosity from bands and promoters, but the connections they made on tour made it all worthwhile.
However you feel about Henry Rollins or the Flag, you can’t deny the fact that throwing caution to the wind and going on tour is one of the most exciting and thrilling things a band can do. My band the Sour Notes have gone on seven different tours, and despite the obvious sonic differences betwixt us and the Flag, there are certainly similarities.
Unless you have a trust fund, come from “very $upportive parents,” or hold a magic job, chances are that being in a “micro-indie” band means you’re very poor. You probably don’t have health insurance, much less get to go on “vacation” outside of touring. You’ve probably come to embrace the dollar deals at Taco Bell; maybe at work you eat soup out of a can.
Your car, if you’re lucky to have one, is probably always on the verge of death, so you have to keep your bike tuned up and know the bus routes. All your time and money goes towards gear and gear upkeep, plus printing posters, booking shows, promoting shows, going to shows, practice, recording, writing songs, and doing whatever else is needed to keep your band plugged in.
I’m not complaining because this lifestyle fucking rules. People fill their lives with all sorts of things, and there’s nothing more fulfilling than filling your time with something creative that you find worthwhile.
In our seven Sour Notes tours, there has yet to be a situation where someone doesn’t break. Back home in Austin, we’re comfortable enough to play to a decent size crowd most nights, mostly because Austin is rad and also very alcoholic – so people are going to see shows and stay until the last band plays. On the road it’s another story. It’s always worth it, but it’s also grueling.
We recently returned from a tour up the country, finishing with Toronto’s annual North by Northeast Festivals & Conference. We took some notes from the road.
It’s Side One Track One blogger John Laird’s birthday, and our tour kickoff at Holy Mountain. We’ve released a cassette single with new songs from our upcoming LP and a cover of Wire’s “Mannequin.” I wear a two-piece suit for the first time in 10 years, and our send off turns into a dance party that ends way too late for anyone to want to drive the first van shift the next morning.
Fuzzy and filled with what feels like excitement, Amarah [Ulghani, bass], Rene [Chavez, guitar], Courtney [Howell, keys], Erin [Howell, drums], Jessica [June Kim, keys], and I hightail it out of Austin in a brand new 15-passenger van that we rented from Balmorhea’s live sound engineer at a fraction of the cost. Our 1986 Dodge van ‘Jacque’ just ain’t what he used to be, and given that his windshield wipers don’t work and the inspection sticker has been out since 2011, we’re grateful to have air-conditioning and live in a community where like-minded people can help us along the way.
We’re bound for New Orleans, and eight hours later, we arrive at the Howlin’ Wolf Den. Houston rap legends the Geto Boys are playing next door and their turnout makes ours look sparse. We eat for half-price, play an energetic set to a handful of people, and drink cheap beer with the door girl. This is what we deem the warm-up show. The door girl says she liked the set, and finds us on Facebook later. Could’ve been worse!
We wake up early at a friend’s cousin’s house and set out for breakfast in the French Quarter at the beautifully affordable Camellia Grill. We catch a New Orleans-style wedding parade in the street before hitting the road again. On the way out, we duck into a fancy hotel near Bourbon Street to inhale some coffee and use their free wi-fi. Even when a tour’s in motion, there’s always work to be done.
The five-hour drive to Birmingham is quiet until we eventually show up at the Bottletree Cafe, which we are told is run by someone from the Polyphonic Spree. If that’s in fact true, it shows.
The Bottletree turns out to be the most charismatically staffed venue we’ve ever played. We arrive just before our stage time and play a sweaty set to a packed house of enthusiastic locals. The staff talks us up all night after the show and offers us more than what we’re guaranteed for playing, even offering to reopen the kitchen to feed us for free after we miss the deadline for ordering. Who does that?
We party the night away with the trustworthy and genuine locals and sleep like babies in the venue’s two hospitality airstream trailers. So fun lingering around a club after it closes. It made me feel like I was in that Eighties movie Mannequin.
It’s 5am when the alarm goes off. We played band heaven last night, yet face a 12-hour drive to Washington DC. None of us are working on more than two hours of sleep. We cautiously drive in rotating shifts.
A long drive like this can be dangerous, especially on a time crunch, but we make it to DC in time for load-in at Comet Ping Pong for a show put on by promoter Sasha Oh My Lord. After the show, everyone’s in great spirits and I get into a beer-spraying fight with Erin outside of the club. Amarah has a few friends that live in the area, so the band splits up into two separate sleeping groups to make it easier for our hosts in their tiny DC apartments.
Past tours have proven that too much downtime can really kill a band’s rhythm, so we usually shoot to play every night. There’s something special about having only two things to do every day on tour. You show up, then you play the best you can.
If only life were always that simple.
We’re on our way to New York City now, a place we usually like to hit as early as possible, because it’s the most fun city in the United States for a group of vagabonds to wander around in. Something about New York always feels like it’s some kind of halfway-point of the tour.
We play a great show. The crowd is super fun despite the fact that the promoter at Public Assembly dropped the ball on confirming the headliner we set up for the evening after weeks of correspondence. In retrospect, we didn’t actually know the show was going to happen until four days prior and felt it tacky to cancel. They still force us to cough up the $30 left to make the room fee. No one gets paid; not even gas money.
After a 12-hour drive to the Canadian border, we’re detained for three more. We’re set to play the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern that night for Dave Bookman’s Nu Music Nite in downtown Toronto, one of our favorite places to play. That stage has seen the likes of the Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Ramones, Police, and Wilco.
The border patrol is kind enough to note our 12am appearance on the detainment forms and lovelier still to expedite the paperwork Rene needs to get past the border. As a foreign visitor, you normally cannot get into Canada if you have a conviction on your record, even if it was a DWI from having your headlights turned off in a Jack- in-the-Box drive-through – out of courtesy, mind you!
Rene announced before we left that this tour would be his last run with the band, so we’re willing to risk the Canadian border issue and really be adamant about him getting by. Thanks to the immigration paperwork and guidance North by Northeast provided us, three hours whizzed by knowing we’d make it to our show that night.
The Horseshoe show is great and surprisingly buzzing for a Tuesday night. Turns out that just as SXSW has hundreds of volunteers to stuff tote bags full of goodies for its attendees, NXNE does too! Many of those volunteers are ready to party after a hard day’s work.
We run into the original NXNE Volunteer Coordinator, a friendly lady who chats with us about how NXNE started out with the SXSW staff coaching them for five years, and how the NXNE folks have a condo in Austin just for SXSW purposes. It’s an educational experience. Among the great Canadian bands we play with that night, Austin’s own Quiet Company ends up playing after us as a surprise late addition to the bill. Funny how you travel all the way to Toronto and end up sharing the stage with a band from back home.
Today’s our day to act as tourists, so we split up into different directions for a few hours. I wander into June Records to buy the new Boards of Canada album and end up walking out with the first OMD album instead. When the band meets back up later in the day, Jessica has a new pair of maroon Dr. Martens boots on.
After a buzz-killing day off, we head to Waterloo-Kitchener, a suburb of Toronto where our friends Trap Tiger live. The dudes in that band run a music collective called Thought-Pop, which has helped us set up additional shows and housing the last three years we’ve come to Canada on tour, and they’ve set up another one this round.
We play on the edge of town in a cafe called the Little Bean. The Thought-Pop dudes bring the PA, run sound, and even book the bands we play with, which can be very helpful when you’re trying to book an entire tour yourself. After our show, we all caravan back to their spacious 1920s home a few blocks away from downtown and get drunk on the porch.
We head back to Toronto as the NXNE festivities are now in full-swing, catching Merchandise in front of a packed crowd in a room so small I could reach up and touch the ceiling! Later, we catch the National play a lethargic set to thousands in Dundas Square, before witnessing a fun, late-night set by Why? back at the Horseshoe Tavern. That night we buy four small bottles of various booze and mixers, grab some takeout pizza, and stay in the cheapest hotel we can, Priceline. We end up watching Halloween in the hotel room until we pass out.
Today is the day of our official NXNE showcase, and traffic is thick on our way back into Toronto proper. We spend a good two hours in the van, pay the parking meter near the venue, then eat what turns out to be the first of three consecutive cheeseburger meals – for me, at least. Oddly enough, another Austin band, the Boxing Lesson, opens our showcase at Sneaky Dee’s that night!
Thanks to NXNE and the rad shoutout by Toronto music blog Chromewaves, our NXNE showcase quickly fills with people. Playing to a room of rad peeps who are probably seeing you for the first time is the best! By the time we hit our stride, the audience is fully captive.
We hit the road at 6am, headed for Chicago. Back at the border, we get detained once again, but luckily the van inspector recognizes our daunting, Tetris-like arrangement of gear and decides not to inspect the entire van – choosing instead to hassle us about our outdated Wikipedia entry for a bit.
That night we play at Quenchers in Logan Square with my favorite bands on tour, the Uglies and Evacuate the Earth. Our friends Josh and Heather from Chicago band Bring Your Ray Gun come out to see us and we all go back to their house right under the L. There’s a house party waiting for us when we arrive, and these friendly Chicagoans are projecting Dazed and Confused on a big screen in the backyard.
Seeing those dated shots of Austin feels kinda perfect at that moment and makes me miss home a little. Some of us sleep in the van that night. By now, we’re one with that van.
I wake up around 6:30am, slightly sad knowing that tonight will be the last show of the tour. We get on the road and I pass out for most of the long drive to Lawrence, Ks., where we are show-swapping with a local band called Brain Food. They’ll be coming to Austin over the Fourth of July weekend for some shows we’re helping them schedule. I’ve never been to Lawrence before and am so glad we end up playing there.
The town has a killer record store called Love Garden Records that’s got an amazing selection of vinyl and a friendly, talkative staff. I end up buying the new Japandroids album Celebration Rock for Amarah since I ate her burger earlier, and Blonde Redhead’s 23 for Jessica, since it’s her birthday.
The 11-hour drive back to Austin is quiet and reflective. I try and think about how we tried our best to accomplish what we tried to do, and in the end how that’s all that matters to me. It just so happens that the tour is fun on top of it all, and all the seemingly exhausting work that went into it doesn’t compare to those musical moments we shared. Things get tricky sometimes, and you might question what you did this all for. You might, but I don’t.
When we arrive home around 8pm, we take the van for a vacuum and wash before returning it to our friend. Erin, Amarah, and I order takeout Thai food, crack open a fresh bottle of Whiskey, and watch The Goonies.
Copyright © 2020 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.