Hard Habit to Break

On tour with Moonlight Towers: 6,500 miles, no money

"When we get there gonna jump in the air.

No one'll see us 'cause there's nobody there.

After all, you know we really don't care.

Hold on, I'm gonna take you there."

– Chicago, "Get Away"

Moonlight Towers are a taciturn bunch. Their tongues loosen once the Jäger shots and vodka & sodas start pouring, sure, but during the day, not so much. On the Austin foursome's August tour to Seattle and back, huge swatches of Big Bend country, Arizona's Sonoran Desert, California's Imperial Valley, Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains, the Rockies, and the vast plains of Kansas pass by in utter silence. Like other men of few words, when they do speak up, it's often profound.

"Fuck you, Richard."

"Fuck your mother."

This exchange, repeated umpteen times in umpteen variations over three grueling weeks, is just another way to say, "I love you." Think about it: The only people who say that to each other without coming to blows are family, teammates, and soldiers. A band on tour, four thirtysomethings sleeping on floors, living hand to mouth, and playing rock & roll, is all of the above.

Smile when you call me that (from left): James Stevens, Jacob Schulze, Richard Galloway, Jason Daniels
Smile when you call me that (from left): James Stevens, Jacob Schulze, Richard Galloway, Jason Daniels (Photo By Felicia Graham)

Moonlight Towers have a van, a booking agent, a mailing list, and not much else. No manager or full-time publicist. They're their own record label and are still in the hole from their last album, 2005's Like You Were Never There. ("Who knew 'power pop' could sound so powerless?" sniffed a Chronicle reviewer.) This God Hates Us tour is their first-ever venture west of Interstate 35 and comes straight out of their pockets. Their primary goal – their only goal, really – is breaking even. It sounds like a fantasy, and if not for a couple of well-timed, well-paying shows back home, it would be.

There are all kinds of ways to lose money on tour. Over Indian food near the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California, frontman, songwriter, and driver James Stevens estimates it takes $150 per day to keep Towers fed, housed, and mobile. That's being charitable. Gas alone runs $75-90 every 400 miles. The band will cover about 6,500 miles of U.S. real estate on this tour; they've racked up nearly 40,000 miles in the van since they bought it a year ago. They crash with friends wherever possible, but when that's not an option, they'd rather spring for a hotel room than sleep in the van, like they did when they were marooned at a Memphis truck stop as Hurricane Katrina raged overhead. (Priceline.com is a godsend.) For four men who often haven't eaten in several hours, even McDonald's or Jack in the Box runs about $40 per meal. Decent food, such as the curry at Gate of India on Santa Monica Boulevard, costs at least twice that. Cracker Barrel, the down-home restaurant chain the band treats with almost religious reverence, is an oasis in Tucson and Wichita, but not a cheap one.

William Butler Yeats' 1921 poem "The Second Coming" is best known for its conclusion: "What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" It also contains the line "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," and the Irishman could be describing Towers' equipment. Bassist Jason Daniels' amp head gives out at the end of the tour's first show in Marfa, and a guy in El Paso repairs it for $60. A frustrated Stevens smashes his guitar in Las Cruces, N.M.; the Danelectro he buys the next day is $180. That same show, one of guitarist and keyboardist Jacob Schulze's amps dies sometime after he vomits onstage. He tries to have it repaired in Tucson, but it doesn't take, so he goes without the rest of the way. "Every piece of equipment we have is fucking broken," Stevens tells the crowd at Santa Monica's 14 Below. Nothing else breaks until drummer Richard Galloway's kick pedal gives out in Salt Lake City.

Average payout on the Losing Our Ass tour is around $100 a night, plus another $30-40 in T-shirt and CD sales. Occasionally more, usually not. The second night in Las Cruces, their gig at a bowling alley's outdoor patio is rained out, but the manager mercifully still comps the drinks and even plays a couple Towers songs over the PA. They sell two CDs, without playing a note, and Galloway and Daniels turn out to be quite the bowlers. In Tucson, they play for tips. On a Sunday. More than once, the number of people watching them fails to break double figures. In San Francisco, on a sold-out Friday night with roots-rock kindred spirits Oranger, under a giant elk head in the Hotel Utah Saloon, it does several times over.
Bottoms up: Towers engage in their second-favorite touring activity.
Bottoms up: Towers engage in their second-favorite touring activity. (Photo By Felicia Graham)

The band jokes about titling their next album There's Usually More People Here. They're told as much, verbatim, in Sacramento, Calif.; Boise, Idaho; and Lawrence, Kan. In Santa Cruz, on the California coast south of Silicon Valley, there are probably more people there when the custodians come in to clean the floors. Yet they get asked back nearly everywhere. "We're irrelevant to what's going on [in music] right now," Schulze says in Tucson, after the tour's longest show and the only one reviewed (glowingly) by the local press. "We're a bar band." Hard to argue with that, as we're sitting at a bar when he says it: a 1940s-style cocktail lounge called Plush, not far from the University of Arizona. There are many others: 15 bars in 19 days.

So, bar band, yes. Irrelevant, no. Towers' experience is eminently relevant because it's reality. The number of bands that enjoy a life of private-bunk tour buses and backstage blow-job buffets is painfully minute. For anyone else who thinks people outside their hometown might be interested in their songs, this is the cold, hard truth. Touring sucks most of the time. True, says Schulze, "[but] what are we going to do? Stay home?" Every time we hear it's 102 degrees back in Austin, we laugh and laugh and laugh.

What's irrelevant is time itself after five hours of riding in the van. Five days, forget about it. Stevens has a hard time sitting still in general, so he drives. Daniels pecks away writing Web code on his laptop; he might as well be back at work at Apple. Galloway sleeps or borrows Daniels' iPod nano. Also armed with a PowerBook, Schulze looks at porn, reads the Drudge Report, plays online poker, and watches Aqua Teen Hunger Force on YouTube. The Sirius satellite radio gets plenty of use: New Country, First Wave, Classic Vinyl, Howard 100. There's iTunes: Richard Buckner, the Cure, Wings, Austin's Pink Nasty, Krystof Penderecki. The only cassette in the van is, as if it could be anything else, Jackson Browne's Running on Empty. Serial killers and underage girls dominate what conversation there is; another pastime, useful in heavy downtown traffic, is yelling perverse things at unsuspecting pedestrians. Refueling in Portland, Ore., as police roust a shirtless vagrant on a downtown street corner, Schulze says, "Look, Richard; there's your dad."

"Fuck you."

The band develops an unnatural obsession with former Chicago singer Peter Cetera. It starts as a joke, maybe, but after the Las Cruces show, they head straight for LimeWire. Soon they've harvested a wealth of premium Eighties soft rock, and "If You Leave Me Now," "Hard to Say I'm Sorry," and "Hard Habit to Break" become the tour's unofficial soundtrack. For some reason, they're not really that into "Glory of Love." The videos from the Chicago 17 period, which Galloway unearths via YouTube, must be seen to be believed. ("Is that a Bauhaus T-shirt?" It sure is.) Cetera recedes once Towers share the bill in Sacramento with locals the Scott Rodell Band and latch onto their song "Shoeshine Money": "do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-don't lock the door!" It is pretty funny the first few times but not as funny as the "RaceBaiter 5000." This digital Don Rickles results from Schulze executing his Mac's "speak text" function on pages of ethnic jokes he downloaded and running it through the van's sound system. It keeps us in stitches all the way from San Francisco to Sacramento. When 200 miles stare you in the face, and 400 the next day, irrational behavior and hysterical laughter are acceptable substitutes for, you know, sanity.

Daniels doesn't drink, hasn't for more than a year. How, I ask him in Lawrence, is this possible? "Easy," he replies. "I get to watch them." Thus Daniels often drives to the hotel after gigs. The other three prefer vodka & soda to beer because they take in enough calories eating all that fast food. They never met a shot of Jägermeister they didn't like, and they rate venues by how generous they are with drink tickets. The worst thing is being on tour with no drinking money, Schulze says in Santa Cruz, because then "that van is like a cell." A short time earlier, Towers played to all of two people – friends of Daniels' who drove down from Sacramento. "We're going to drown our demoralization in Jäger and vodka," Stevens announces, and indeed they do. The night culminates in a round of vomiting and public urination, and the trip becomes the Bodily Fluids tour.

Killing time (from top): The Barrel, the laptop, the load-in, the lobby
Killing time (from top): The Barrel, the laptop, the load-in, the lobby (Photo By Felicia Graham)

Other similar episodes: shotgunning beers in Marfa; dancing to the Doobie Brothers in Santa Monica; swimming in the frigid Snoqualmie River outside Seattle; unspeakable acts visited upon yours truly in Las Cruces (see for yourself at asshockey.blogspot.com); Galloway leaving a roomful of Portland hipsters slack-jawed with a dynamite karaoke "Freebird"; a man shooting expensive fireworks off a street corner in San Francisco. In other words, alcohol is responsible for pretty much anything interesting, sickening, or life-threatening that happens. Besides numbing disappointment and obliterating sound judgement, booze also kills the previous day's hangover better than guzzling Gatorade and aids immeasurably with breaking the ice in a town full of strangers.

Just like at home, friends can be the saving grace of life on the road. Old friends or new. The handyman at Towers' Marfa hotel cooks them fried chicken, butter beans, fried okra, and corn bread. Our host in San Francisco, another friend of Daniels', has an Xbox 360 and a 9-foot projection screen. Someone in a band produced by Stevens' father-in-law puts the group up in Sacramento and cooks a pot of delicious vegetarian pasta the next day. Justin Bankston of Winslow and the Paper South, a familiar face from Club de Ville, shows up unexpectedly in Seattle, where, as luck would have it, the club manager is Schulze's SXSW drinking buddy. Stevens' wife, Sara – herself visiting friends – and their 1-year-old daughter, Scarlett, show up in Denver. Schulze gets a wicked sunburn after falling asleep in the pool of his cousin's Hollywood apartment building; everyone else is doing laundry and checking e-mail back in Santa Monica, at yet another old Austin friend's apartment. Friends of the band, several from as far back as high school, come see them in every city but one or two. Like whatever other paying customers might be present, they all leave impressed, many with brand-new shirts and CDs.

Progress comes incrementally, unexpectedly, and without guarantee, but it happens. Since it's their first trip out West, Towers are more concerned with sizing up the venues and cozying up to bartenders and soundmen than counting heads. That comes later. The band has already laid a similar foundation in the mid-South and Midwest and reaped the benefits this spring. "We played Columbia, Missouri, three times before we found the right place," notes Stevens. Two members of Tucson Americanists the Solace Brothers ask the band to set up a mutual gig in Austin. The Oranger guys offer Schulze a pedal-steel gig on their next record and promise to talk Towers up to their label. In Los Angeles, Stevens meets for more than an hour with Bill Armstrong, co-founder of punk rock label SideOneDummy (Gogol Bordello, Bedouin Soundclash) and an old friend of his brother's. The soundman in Boise also works for Built to Spill; Stevens offers to take him out for barbecue when that band plays Stubb's next month. "We could open for Built to Spill," says Stevens. "We need to get up in front of a bunch of people and unleash the fury."

That didn't quite happen this time: "We could have been Led Zeppelin up there and no one would care."

Maybe not Led Zeppelin, but they do have Television down cold. At the end of their set, if Towers smell blood and figure the crowd is somewhat familiar with the CBGB art-rockers, they close with 10-plus minutes of "Marquee Moon." It's a gauntlet, a challenge, both to each other and the audience: Are you ready for this? The song costs Stevens a guitar in Las Cruces and Galloway a drum head in Denver. They don't play it in Los Angeles because the Silverlake Lounge doesn't have air conditioning – neither does Lawrence's Tap Room – and, reckons Galloway, "I probably would have died." In Seattle, San Francisco, and Santa Monica, it kills. A kid in Seattle, who says he's in a band called Vomiting Unicorn, wants to know which one of their two CDs it's on. Likewise, a breathless spectator outside Hotel Utah raves to his friend: "That was even better than Television!"

"Damn right it was," says Stevens.

End of the road: Last show of the tour in Lawrence, Kan.
End of the road: Last show of the tour in Lawrence, Kan. (Photo By Felicia Graham)

Kicking ass is the best revenge, and why all those hours in the van mean nothing next to the one hour (or less) they spend onstage. Towers are a bar band in an indie-rock world, but only because they never understood when or how or why "bar band" acquired negative connotations. As a group, they despise indie rock, its pretensions, its posturing, its eyeliner. If that makes them unfashionable, they couldn't care less. Continuing what the Beatles and Replacements and Gram Parsons and Big Star began suits them just fine. If no one comes to the gig, they shrug it off as free rehearsal time. Better than free, really, because they do still get paid.

"It doesn't matter if there's zero people in the audience," says Galloway in Portland, where they've just finished playing to a crowd of just about that size. "We're going to play our asses off because we're so close, and we just like playing together."

The road keeps its own clock. At three days it's a blast, at one week it's a blur, and after the last show in Lawrence, the band is ready to do another month. Stevens calls this temporal distortion "surreal." But surreal isn't confinement in a van for a fortnight and a half; it's sleeping in your own bed for the first time in three weeks. It's riding home through South Austin at 4:30am like it's been only one show instead of 15, coming to work Monday morning and the office manager not even realizing you were gone. By then, the imprint of the road has already begun to fade, and each day thereafter it's a little harder to remember if any of this ever happened. But it did.

In November, they go back out. This time, east. end story

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Moonlight Towers, James Stevens, Jacob Schulze, Jason Daniels, Richard Galloway, Marquee Moon, Chicago, Peter Cetera

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