Entries from our second European tour. For this little adventure we had Kirsty Almeida along for the ride. Mad as a box of frogs that one…
The Sea, The Sea: 14 March, 2012
Well, The Bedlam Six and I dutifully threw our nothings into the English Channel and are now in Bruges drinking reasonably priced beers in the Bauhaus bar listening to ABBA’s Dancing Queen (with the teetering nothings of other patrons stacked up around us).
When we checked in at Dover, however, we discovered our reservations were FROM Calais rather than TO Calais. I won’t divulge which of us made that mistake (but I feel it’s important to say that Dan is typically the most organised of all of us so we forgive him). Still, there was no harm done, the staff were very helpful and we ended up setting sail a little earlier than planned so had a few more minutes of light for the drive into Belgium once we reached the other side. Fran brought with him a collection of national anthems to play when we cross borders – suffice to say the entry into France was very stirring!
The tour thus far has been wonderful. Each night has been really well attended, people even shouting the lyrics back at us in towns we’ve never played before (and they’re not always easy lyrics – I frequently forget lines even though I wrote them!). It has been exhilarating playing to such enthusiastic audiences and a real pleasure to meet a lot of them in the bar afterwards. Thanks to all those who attended these shows, you’ve made us all very happy.
So onto the continent! Last year’s European tour was a lot of fun so we’re looking forward to seeing what gets thrown at us this time round (I doubt it will be Nothing).
Bruges: 14 March, 2012
We awoke in a windowless C-shaped hostel room amidst the hurried shuffling of the international backpacker brigade, the tags and toggles of their luggage scraping the walls of the corridor like listless wolves.
Our evening in Bruges was less than edifying, spent almost entirely in one bar where they rewarded witless antics with free liquor. Suffice to say that our drummer Tom was busy until the small hours. In the morning he found an elaborately woven friendship bracelet on his wrist but no memory of the new friend it pertained to. Such is the poetry of drunkards in the night.
The drive to Duisburg was uneventful (both in terms of scenery and incident) and we are now at the venue setting up the equipment. It is large, concrete, has mock stained glass windows and smells of marzipan – makes me think of Logan’s Run for some reason.
Duisburg: 15 March, 2012
A great first show on the continent. There was the inevitable struggling with between-song banter (never easy overseas but Germany always seem to indulge my woeful linguistic ineptitude – I resorted to a mixture of mime and buffoonery for most of it).
We played a moderately break-neck fifteen-song set plus one encore. The stage was very slippery and thus in turns treacherous when high-kicking but a lot of fun for skids. There was also a large gong on the wall whose charms were almost too overwhelming to resist.
Backstage food was also a triumph. The vegetarian option was grilled halumi which makes a welcome change from the usual bread and dips.
Only bad turn of events as far as I (Louis) was concerned was managing to kick off the heel of my right shoe three songs in. Mental note to throw what remains of the cursed thing through the window of Clarks in Manchester when I get home.
Now back at the hotel disobeying their rules about beer in the rooms.
Freiburg via Frankfurt: 16 March, 2012
It’s funny how quickly one grows accustomed to cheese for breakfast. Typically a porridge man, I’m glorying in the modest hedonism of brie in the morning.
We are now on the road to Frankfurt, scheduled to collect Kirsty Almeida from the airport at 13.20. Currently at a motorway services enjoying the sunshine while Fran fixes some inconsistencies in our van table. We’re all tying ourselves in mental knots trying to remember the song they sing in Home Alone (in the van with John Candy playing clarinet). Send us a message if you know what we’re referring to – set us free from this film trivia purgatory.
Tonight we are playing at Rang Teng Teng in Freiburg.
Freiburg: 17 March, 2012
Last night’s show at Rang Teng Teng was quite superb. We left the stage after an hour-long set and two encore songs and had reached a state of half undress before realising the crowd was still chanting for more (even though the background music had been switched on). Five minutes passed without any change in demand so we climbed the steps back from our cellar dressing room and played some more. By the end Biff had a fat-lip and we were all ready to pass out. Then the sound man brought us some schnapps and we drank with him until the tiny hours. I’m not usually a fan of endless encores, I don’t think audiences should be expected to beg for more and I don’t like all those faux exits some bands enjoy so much – but I admit it’s nice to be asked!
I must confess I’d had mild concerns about this show. It’s a smoking venue and I’ve struggled with long sets in those conditions in the past. It’s purely a logistical concern, some of our songs have so many lyrics that there’s very little space to breathe – one in particular (The Tell-Tale Hound) is as near to musical hyperventilating as it is possible to get. I remember us playing a show in a crowded club in northern Spain a few years ago when the combination of smoke and poor air circulation caused me to nearly lose consciousness. Maybe I should get an oxygen mask like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet – as if I don’t come across as sinister enough when panting into a microphone.
But no, I needn’t have worried. Rang Teng Teng has clearly taken all this into account and the fans in the ceiling meant we had no casualties. Freiburg is a lovely place all round. It has a good balance of old and new. One of those towns you can lose an afternoon milling around in, full of cobbles and dogs and buskers of all flavours. I am sitting in one of the little squares listening to the tip tap of a xylophone, round a few corners was a Highland piper and in the other direction a staggeringly good jazz ensemble. I’m in a very good mood.
And we now have Kirsty Almeida with us, a singer/artist who needs no introduction from me. It’s a lot of fun sharing a stage with her. We leave for Switzerland in fifteen minutes, playing Parterre in Basel this evening.
Basel: 18 March, 2012
Writing about moments of pure joy rarely makes for a compelling read when penned by the likes of me. I’m quite good at cynicism, the raised eyebrow, the mumbled retort, the safe critique. An honest and unfiltered account of sheer happiness, however, and you’ll find me looking at my shoes and adjusting my cuffs.
But last night’s show in Basel was one of the greatest gigs in this band’s career. From load-in at 4.00pm to load out at 5.00am it was a perfect experience. Parterre’s artist liaison/manager is everything a touring musician dreams of – friendly, enthusiastic and seemingly everywhere at once – helpful without being fussy. One of this world’s good people. The venue is clearly run with artists in mind, from the dressing room with its betassled lamp shades to the carpeted stage we were made to feel very special indeed – but as valued collaborators rather than fawned over celebrities. This show was very much a team effort between promoter and performer, not the usual stand-off between art and business.
If no one had turned up we would still have had a great time in that beautiful room, but as it happened there was a formidable crowd better versed in our material than many cities in our native England. We played two forty-five minute sets and in the interval refamiliarised ourselves with obscure numbers from our older releases that had been requested by the crowd. After the final encore we had no more dancy numbers so invited the audience to join us on the grass outside for an unplugged set of candlelit folk songs. To go into further detail would be to strain the endurance of even the most hardened of superlatives.
Once the crowd had dispersed and we’d loaded up the van we ate cake with the venue staff and drank whiskey until dawn. Next stop: Austria.
The Road to Austria: 19 March, 2012
If writing about moments of personal fulfilment in an interesting and inclusive way is a challenge then writing about a day spent in a van holds little hope for an engaging read.
Despite the good bed and hearty breakfast I was in a melancholy humour all day. I suppose you could call it an emotional hangover from the previous evening’s unrelenting good times. In recent years I have become something of calculated optimist (rather than naturally positive). With hours of road ahead and a gigless respite at the other end I felt the euphoria of our Parterre show shrivel and blacken within me, an ugly notion that maybe I’d just glimpsed the perimeters of my own capacity for happiness. But it is natural for humans to sabotage their little victories – maybe it’s nature’s way of keeping us from dwelling on them unhealthily. Or maybe I’m just greedy and never satisfied. Whatever the reason, inactivity has always brought with it an attendant dark mood – I remember the last tour was no different when we had a day off in Ebensee.
But onwards we went, through sauna country to fields of horses, barns of cows and pens of goats, past gingerbread houses and through long tunnels. As we crossed the border Fran played the Austrian national anthem (stirring but with a certain irresolution that I found unsatisfying), then as we approached the alps we switched to Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries and spirits soared once more.
That evening we went for a very good curry then polished off the last of our Duisburg Budvar back at the hotel.
The band is now spread across Innsbruck, the weather a drably furious concoction of mist and rain, the mountains that provide the beautiful visual context hopelessly lost in a greyness chiming drearily with the concrete foreground.
Tonight we play Weekender Club.
Innsbruck: 20 March, 2012
It was as though the people of Innsbruck read yesterday’s miserable blog post and sent all their best cheerers, clappers and dancers to boost our morale.
The four hundred capacity venue was completely packed, from the stage right up to the back staircase. When I leapt over the security barrier to dance in the crowd people didn’t shrink back and titter behind their cameras but danced with me, twirling round and stomping, looking as ridiculous as I did. They then all joined us in singing Happy Birthday to drummer Tom. A lovely crowd.
We should have known it’d be a great show – earlier that day we’d overheard someone walking down the street whistling one of the tunes from our new record. That’s something an obscure band from Manchester has no right to expect when they’re a thousand miles from home.
The party continued long after the encore and this morning everyone slept through their alarms. It was a very confused and rushed exodus. I spent far too long searching for a jumper I was already wearing (that I had indeed slept in).
We are now on the (long) road to Dresden…
Dresden: 21 March, 2012
At the end of the longest drive was the largest venue. Beatpol in Dresden is a cavernous place. Its facade wouldn’t look amiss beneath a great grey sign reading “Ministry Of Truth” – it is a monstrous looming cuboid with gigantic wooden doors, promising a labyrinth of bureaucracy within, armies of ashen-faced statisticians wired up to large whirring machines spewing out incomprehensible tickertape. Inside, however, it feels like a rock venue – lots of black surfaces and old posters – but a rock venue with theatrical aspirations, uplit balcony sections and an ornately plastered ceiling high above, suffering the invisible burden of an incongruous grandeur.
Our dressing room (actually a suite of rooms) alone was bigger than some of the venues we play in the UK. And we were very well looked after. Each destination on this tour has exceeded expectation in some way (I might award prizes in different categories after the last show) and this one definitely wins on food. There was so much food (and such a variety) that I mourned my digestive system’s lamentable inadequacy when confronted with such a spread (not to mention the sad fact that consuming everything offered to us would have necessitated the construction of a Roman style vomitarium before we’d be in any state to mount the stage).
The capacity of Beatpol is about seven hundred and we knew it wouldn’t be anywhere approaching full (it is, after all, our first time in Dresden and we have no representation here in terms of PR etc) but there were about eighty to a hundred people staring up at us when we emerged for the opening number and the auditorium is laid out in such a way that small audiences are not too dwarfed by the room’s vastness. Again we were amazed that some people knew all the words (well, to the songs that are recorded at least). One group of friends had travelled all the way from Erfurt to see us. To say I was touched and encouraged by this information would be an understatement.
The eighteen song set went very well. It’s always harder work when one is conscious of a great space that needs filling but we had a lot of fun. Biff and I cracked out some untested dance moves that could have ended in broken bones and a crushed Dan, but there were no catastrophes (apart from me stamping on my tuner and smashing it into a less than convenient number of pieces).
Another good thing about this show was the presence of our booking agent Dennis Adler, who was passing through Dresden on other business. Dennis has a quiet mania about him, able to maintain a disconcerting harmony between efficiency and chaos. Behind his calm facade I imagine a quicksand of insanity waiting to pull us all in.
Here’s a picture of us all together backstage (Dennis is second from the right). Biff always glows like that after a gig.
Next stop: Hamburg.
Hamburg: 22 March, 2012
Our show at Hafenklang was bracketed with mild drama.
Near Berlin we were pulled over by a couple of very bored police officers. They stalked around our van, pointedly sucking air through their teeth whilst scrutinising the minutiae and pulling out all the psychological tricks in the arsenal of every minor official. There is nothing wrong with our vehicle: it was fully serviced before we set off. We also have no drugs stronger than Lemsip so had nothing to fear on that score. So we stood there in our coats by the side of the road at the mercy of the imaginations of two weasel-faced policemen as they rummaged through our things and accused us of having fake passports (which upon checking through the system in their patrol car turned out to be unfounded). After twenty minutes of this pantomime they decided we hadn’t been wearing our seatbelts (we had) and were let off with a €10 fine and one final scowl before being allowed to continue our journey.
The welcome at the venue was very friendly and the load-in relaxed. We were quickly shown to our band apartment – a large dorm-room with six bunk beds in close proximity beneath the benign and broadly rendered attention of a large youth in leopard skin shorts fondling a ram painted on the ceiling (some of the strangest bedroom art I have ever encountered). Kirsty and I immediately chose top bunks while everyone else slumped down on the bottom – I wonder if that says something about lead vocalists? Is there some fundamental and unconscious urge in us to position ourselves upon life’s lofty canopies rather than among the roots and shadows below?
I hesitate to confess that the show itself was not one I enjoyed. Maybe I shouldn’t be so candid, after all it was no fault of the promoter or venue or audience or band. A cold has caught up with me and taken all the power out of my voice. In Dresden I had relished a newfound deepness to my range and a confidence afforded by the large room and rich onstage monitoring. Here though I felt as ineffectual as a man shouting at televised sport, my delivery thinning more with each number we played. I also fell rather awkwardly during one of the songs and landed on a join in the stage, a metal ridge slicing up between the soft underpart of both kneecaps.
These are just details though, not an excuse. In the past I’ve played with barely any voice at all, chipped my incisors on microphones, had wisdom teeth emerge and fill my mouth with blood mid verse, dislodged my shoulder and even caught my groin on a crowd control barrier. This just happened to be one of those shows when I didn’t have what the room needed that night. That’s a hard thing to admit.
It’s at times like these that having a co-singer is a real blessing. I haven’t mentioned Kirsty much on this blog yet (I think she probably warrants an entire one to herself!) but she’s been phenomenal throughout. We learnt a few of her songs and she’s learnt a lot of ours, getting to grips with some very tricky lyrics with hardly any time for rehearsal. Onstage she has a wonderful knack for sensing when I’m really struggling (rather than just hamming it up) and at such times it is a huge relief to be able to relinquish some of the frontman duties and recharge my batteries.
I know band blogs are supposed to read as a light-hearted chronicling of a group’s progress, appendices to the central narrative of releases and live shows – one victory after another, onwards and onwards towards the hazy sign in the distance that reads “Made It.” But most of the time it doesn’t feel that simple; the smallest of things can provoke crippling doubts about whether or not you’re on the right track. There was nothing wrong with the Hamburg gig, but I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first musician to make a crisis out of nothing. After the show I retired to bed early but lay awake long after the band got back from the bar. I don’t think Ram Boy on the ceiling helped though!
I hope this blog post doesn’t make me sound like I expect joy and perfection from every show we play – really I’m constantly amazed that we’re doing so well. It’s a dream come true. I’m now wearing my orange socks as a gesture towards positive thinking.
In the morning we loaded up the van after a good breakfast and were about to get going when we discovered a flat tire. So out came all the gear and up went the jack. I can now confirm that Biff looks even more formidable than usual when wearing a hi-vis jacket and hoisting up a big white van!
We are now on the road to Bremen.
Bremen: 23 March, 2012
We all instantly fell in love with Bremen. The frustrations of that morning’s flat tire fiasco melted away as soon as we arrived. This is a place that needs no sun to help it shine, yet we were lucky enough to have it in abundance.
I don’t know anything of Bremen’s history. In the short time we spent there I got the sense of a tangible personality to the place, a clear architectural identity that never seemed at odds with the more recent additions of graffiti and advertising slogans. I’m struggling to describe it – for some reason the word “honest” comes to mind when searching for appropriate adjectives.
The venue was located in what i can only describe as a secret street, like a film set almost, walled in by a tall metal gate. There were piles of timber scattered about the ground level and staircases ascending up to the auditorium and bar. The performance space exuded professionalism and had clearly been the subject of a long and painstaking process of acoustic treatment. The technical staff addressed us with a playful grumpiness that always fills me with confidence when setting up for a show.
We played one long set plus encore. About eighteen songs in total. We would have done more but my voice was in tatters and so I decided not to risk destroying it completely before finishing the tour.
We left Lagerhaus around midnight and found our apartment to be the most lavish of our career thus far – two floors separated by a spiral staircase, rooms littered with exotic masks and antique dolls, puppets and all manner of peculiar accoutrements. Our instructions had told us to be quiet upon arrival but there was no need… we were struck dumb.
Next stop: Lauenau
Lauenau: 24 March, 2012
Some days ago we were sitting in the van pouring over our atlas trying to work out approximate journey durations. When it came to Lauenau we simply couldn’t locate it. Not even in the index. This did not inspire confidence. The words “you’re off the edge of the map… here there be monsters” sprang to my mind. We sought counsel from some audience members after the show in Bremen – a few said “where’s that?” while others made worrying snorting sounds, one just told us not to go but instead stay and play music in her house. Eventually we spoke to a man who had a mother there and didn’t speak too disparagingly about the place. Still, by this point we were less than enthusiastic.
Let this be a lesson about lazy judgements. Lauenau was amazing. Great receptive crowd of all ages and wonderful hospitality in general. Such a joy to play. I hope we return one day.
The venue used to be the powerhouse of an old furniture factory but for the last ten years has been a workshop/exhibition space run by the eminent painter Thomas Ritter (see image). We were greeted by the aroma of turpentine and sawdust as we loaded in our equipment and I experienced a rather Proustian flashback to a childhood memory of my grandfather’s workshop on the Isle Of Skye. That doesn’t typically happen when we enter a venue. The layout was pleasantly challenging – seated sections around the sides above and below the thrust stage, a staircase at the far end where people could stand for a better vantage point and a good sized dancing area in the middle.
Our dressing room was the yoga studio next door (connected to the backstage area by a courtyard). It was the first time we’ve ever been provided with a meditation chamber at a gig.
The concert itself was phenomenal. Ritter’s son had seen us play in Hannover last year and was the reason for our being booked at this fascinating venue. The whole place was packed – people had squeezed themselves into every possible nook, some having to peer in through the doorway and window to get a glimpse.
We played two sets plus two wild encores. Then hung out in the bar talking to the audience and signing things until closing time.
A group of bright young things then invited us to a house party. It is here that the narrative splits, with one half of the band heading to the hotel and the other in search of adventure. I regret to say I can give you no account of the latter. I can, however, tell you the hotel was very plush with comfortable beds and a pleasant view of rolling fields and windmills. I may not be particularly rock and roll in my post-gig habits but at least I didn’t miss breakfast.
Next stop: Saarbrücken.
Saarbrücken: 25 March, 2012
This is a German town where French people go for bargains. That’s what Estella (Sparte4’s artist liaison) told us. For years these two nations have occupied the same shopping space, commercially but never linguistically; a retail accord, their polite transactions like silent ambassadors or ocean liners passing in the mist.
Wandering through the street after soundcheck we decided Saarbrücken looks best at night. I don’t mean that as an insult. For me it felt like a town of angles rather than details. Pleasing silhouettes and promising shadows.
The venue was deceptive in its dimensions. Fans of Doctor Who will understand me when I say it is dimensionally transcendental – longer, wider and taller than it first appeared (and certainly larger than one might expect an independent upstairs city centre theatre/bar to be). They mostly put on plays and seated shows with folk/jazz acts (our friend Liz Green was there last week and apparently gave us a shout out, which might explain why our gig was so well attended).
This was another evening that yielded no clues as to how it might develop. We arrived to find a sea of beanbags arranged in tight rows right up to the stage. It did not take long for my initial reaction of amusement to mutate into one of concern. Inspiring people to spring out of their seats and dance is hard enough, getting them to negotiate their slumped carcasses out of the leathery embrace of a giant floor cushion is almost impossible.
We opted to play two sets, the first peppered with some of our milder numbers but containing a strong suggestion that there would be a face melting sonic onslaught after the interval. People were up and moving long before that though and cheered loudly when I suggested losing the beanbags for Act Two (though not before I’d launched myself off the stage into aforementioned cushions, thrashing around in them during the instrumental section of The Tell-Tale Hound, sending them flying in all directions – easily the most comfortable stage dive of my career!).
They were a great audience. Indeed it was a wonderful final show of the continental leg of the Memoir Noir tour. After two encores and a period of mingling in the bar the venue manager told us they’d never had dancing there before. Mission accomplished.
And that, as they say, is that. I am writing this entry on the way home via Calais. Dan is driving, Kirsty is next to me doing her accounts, Fran is opposite throwing the odd suspicious glance in my direction (probably wondering which of his dark secrets I’m publishing here – he’s my regular slumber chum when we don’t get individual hotel rooms). Everyone else is reading or snoozing. About an hour ago we passed through Luxembourg to fill Bessie with cheap diesel while the smoking contingent of the band stocked up on a few months’ worth of tobacco.
It’s been a short tour but a tremendously rewarding one. At each destination we have encountered people who have known our names, habits and lyrics (something we are not used to – particularly overseas) and have met some of the nicest folks one can imagine. Physically it has been exhausting – I have bruises all over from ill-judged stage dives, three smashed fingers on my strumming hand and barely any voice left – but emotionally we are soaring. I feel positive about the future, content with the present and we’ve got a few more stories to stash away for our winter years.
And we all still like each other.
Special thanks to Sara Harris who has been in charge of our merch table and shared driving and archiving duties. It’s a pleasure having her on the team.
Next stop: England.
Retrospective: 11 April, 2012
Five years and four releases into our career as a band I think there was an unspoken agreement that if we didn’t start making some tangible progress we would have to rethink some of our big life decisions.
This tour more than delivered. In fact there were a few moments where I actually wondered if I’d been dreaming too small all this time.
I feel a little guilty that this blog did not afford the same attention to the UK dates as it did the continental ones. This is not due to any favouritism, rather that when in the the UK I tend to be juggling many roles in between gigs whereas abroad (deprived of an affordable phone line and internet connection for much of the time) I am more attuned to the business at hand – indeed it is an immersive experience with few equivalents.
Up and down England and Scotland the shows were a joy, all well-attended and some sold out. Plus it was our first experience of people knowing the words in places we’d never been – surely nothing in the world can be more gratifying to a songwriter!
And it was the same in Germany and in Austria and in Switzerland! People requesting obscure numbers from our back catalog and singing along to my ridiculous lyrics. Some had traveled hours to see us, even from neighbouring countries absent from our itinerary.
I admit now that the prospect of this second tour on the continent had filled me with a certain nervousness, like a difficult second album or much-trumped sequel. My suspicion was that it would not live up to the expectations garnered from our last Euro tour, that there would be no sense of progress or, worse still, a feeling of going backwards. I had worried that such a disappointment would undermine band morale and lead eventually to a downward spiral in creativity and general output. But it was all glorious and we are all eager to return at the soonest possibility. I waited a week before penning this recap in order to get a sense of perspective on the whole thing (naturally I am somewhat distrustful of euphoria in the transmitting of clear facts) but I am still reeling from it all, drunk on the jouissance of our wonderful expedition.
Never before has there been such a palpable sense that we’re on the right track. I’d like to take this opportunity to say that the band and I are immensely grateful to all those who have helped us arrive at this point in our career. We have no outside financial backing, no marketing campaign, barely any radio support outside of Manchester and have never made a dent on the national press. Our success thus far is all down to word of mouth, which means it’s all down to you.
Sincerely, thank you.
LB & TB6