Entries from our third European tour. This diary was a little more existential than previous efforts; entries seemed to be more thematic than journalistic. Maybe I’m just getting old and introspective…
Bruges: 3 April, 2013
I write this at some unmentionable hour having finally given up on the idea of sleep. It is pitch black in our windowless hostel room and the air is heavy with the smell of feet. There is a chorus of snoring from every corner and my head is in a fog of boredom.
We always come through Bruges when we tour the continent. It’s a beautiful town that doubles as a convenient pit-stop between our UK and German dates. A place in which to gather ourselves. It’s good to have an evening where we can all just relax over a few beers without thinking about load-in times, soundchecks and the rest.
Strangely though we barely spoke of the tour ahead. It’s only a little one (nine dates spread across Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium), but we usually spend this time studying the tour book and discussing the venues. This evening we mostly just chatted about films and past antics, interspersed with the odd bit of date scheduling for album mixing and the like. This is our fourth time on the continent as a band and I wonder if we are in danger of beginning to look at what we do as normal.
I suppose it is inevitable though. We’ve been together a long time now, spent innumerable hours squeezed into the backs of vans and the backstages of venues, breathing in one another’s peculiar aromas, contributing to the shared pool of mutually inflicted wrinkles, aches and hair loss.
And though my nostrils are currently full with the attendant demons of various socks and armpits, this is by far my favourite time in the Bedlam calendar. Our age of constant social networking, self-marketing and general gimmick farming affords scant opportunities for a band to just be a band. But on the road we can be. It is a timeless thing we do here. A simple thing. And there is a rare and wonderful dignity in being true to the promises we made to ourselves as younger men. Here our phones don’t distract us, nor the endless fictions of Facebook, the perpetually raised eyebrow of Twitter’s incessant epigrams or the bleating neediness of email. No utility bills or red-lined reminder letters from the council tax bloodhounds arrive where we are.
Our van may not be the best in the world, but it’s fast enough to outrun adult responsibilities. For a few weeks at least.
Frankfurt: 4 April, 2013
When one spends much of one’s “working” life screaming at a group of partially invisible strangers, a tide of brow-sweat mingling with the makeup to form a dirty soup in the eyes, half blind yet all confidence, legs at an unnatural ninety degree stance as if astride a pregnant camel, it might seem a bit strange to admit how much we all worry about whether anyone’s going to actually turn up to the gig. In my studies of the performer ego I’ve never quite been able to work out if the projected nonchalance is supposed to pertain to a lack of interest in the audience or merely the assumption that “yes, of course there will be a crowd, who wouldn’t want what we have to offer?”
If there is a narrative or theme to our live shows it is one that centres on the premise that rock and roll is, essentially, an utterly ridiculous thing. The fact that we don’t take ourselves too seriously means that if we’re in an eight hundred capacity venue and only a hundred people turn up (as happened in Dresden last year), it’s not actually too embarrassing because everyone in the room can enjoy the insanity of six guys on a huge stage playing loudly and angrily to a mostly empty room. When the attendance levels are less than ideal I like to imagine we’re actors in a Samuel Beckett play, going round in circles that are simultaneously tragic and absurd, the audience a willing collaborator in an awkward musical comedy. Sometimes these gigs are the most enjoyable ones. We’ve all been audience members at empty venues, we all know how uncomfortable it can be and how you have to try and clap with the strength of ten rather than one. If you are onstage performing to such an audience the first thing you need to do is assure them that there is nothing to worry about. I remember having a three-week residency at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2008 and some nights we’d only have two or three people watching. On such occasions I’d extract an imaginary telescope from my pocket and peer through it at them one by one, speaking Ham’s line from Beckett’s Endgame: “I see multitudes in transports of joy…”
The reason I’ve wandered down this conversational cul-de-sac is that all this stuff was flitting around my mind before show time. If you’re sitting in the backstage area of Brotfabrik in Frankfurt you can barely hear a peep from the auditorium (it just sounds like there’s no one out there). I don’t know about the other guys but I was certainly expecting to have to dust off the old imaginary telescope. We’d never played this town before, so there was no reason to expect a big turn out.
But it was a great crowd. A crowd that sang along and shouted out requests. One guy had even bought us a box of chocolates and said thanks for coming to Frankfurt. Receiving presents from the audience is certainly not something we’re used to!
The wonderful thing about having a certain paranoia about one’s appeal is that the surprise of being confronted by such a great audience in an unfamiliar town is among the greatest sensations it is possible to experience.
Next stop: Basel, Switzerland.
Basel: 5 April, 2013
We try to moderate our expectancy levels on tour. Indeed, I try to moderate them in everything I do (I’m not sure if I’m a cautious optimist or a cheery pessimist). But I admit we had high hopes for this particular show.
Parterre is among my favourite venues in the world. It quite simply exudes a sense of goodwill. Usually we assess places based on sound quality, stage size, monitor mixes and that sort of stuff. Parterre, however, is more like a living thing, it would be vulgar to discuss its vital statistics.
Andrea the manager has become a personal friend since we last played in Switzerland and it was great to catch up over a coffee before soundcheck. I usually experience a huge dip in spirits in the hour or so preceding a gig but there wasn’t the opportunity in this instance because we just spent too much time chatting – before I knew it we were due onstage.
We were greeted by a packed house of smiley energetic people of all ages. Such a lovely audience. Every time I announced the name of a familiar song there would be a whoop of approval. Indeed every time I said “this is a new one” there’d be an equally enthusiastic response. I sometimes dread playing our quiet “pretty” numbers (as I’m aware these aren’t what we tend to get booked for) but there was an unspoken trust in the air that allowed us a certain freedom and flexibility. We rarely stray too far from loud and fast though. By the end of the performance I’d made two shirts transparent with sweat. I imagine the audience members who hugged me afterwards instantly regretted their decision!
Usually we’re pretty sensible after gigs when we’re touring. A couple of beers and then bed. That was never going to happen here though – seeing the Parterre guys was a bit like a family reunion. It wasn’t long before the whisky appeared. Last year we were up all night with them, eating cake, singing songs, eventually stumbling back to the hotel in broad shameful daylight. According to Andrea our excesses at last year’s post-gig party are second only to Liz Green. I’m fine with that, I’ve had a lot of drinks with Liz over the years and can only assume she has the constitution of an iron rhinoceros. Last year, however, we had a day off the next day; this year there is no such luxury. So we exercised restraint and got to bed while it was still night, hitting the road by late morning, the van full of Swiss chocolate.
Next stop: Kufstein, Austria
Kufstein: 6 April, 2013
The more gigs one plays, the more one realises how small the live music circuit (both national and international) really is. Of course there is an endless cycle of new venues, new bands and new promoters coming and going, turf wars, backstabbing, shallow marketing, quick fixes, chancers – all the things that get in the way of humans playing and listening to music for enjoyment. But those that remain constant, those who weather the storm, those in it for the long haul, who understand the give and take of the entertainment industry, with a grasp of the need for patience and sustainability, with a love for art undimmed by the machinations of dreary industry… those are the people one encounters again and again. If it wasn’t for them there would very likely not be a live music circuit at all. It would simply be an utterly intolerable sector in which to try and carve out a niche (and I for one would probably have given up a long time ago).
Though we have never played Kufstein before, we met a familiar face. Erwin Lacher has been our sound engineer twice in the past. This time he was also the event organiser. He has a wit as dry as a high noon savanna, he is very good at his job and we all get on with him really well.
We’d only had one presale for our show at Kufa. That doesn’t mean much, our audiences tend to be the kind that buy on the door. Still, it’s enough to worry most promoters and cast a gloomy pall over the hours preceding the show. But Erwin was in good spirits. Indeed, when the crowd did materialise he was pleasantly surprised. “I didn’t think as many people would come – I just booked you because I want you to play here next year so figured we’d better do a bit of groundwork.”
That is the thing I love most about working over here. The venues, for the most part, do not conduct themselves on a night by night basis, they believe that booking the right bands is an investment as important as having running water – something essential that doesn’t necessarily equate to instant obvious profits in the short term. The belief seems to be that good things take time and work. Often a LOT of time and ALWAYS a lot of work. Pubs that save money on not cleaning their pipes will inevitably eventually lose money when no one wants to buy the beer anymore. Venues that showcase inappropriate artists for the sake of one night’s door takings will lose the confidence of a regular clientele.
Almost everywhere we play here we notice a trust between audience and venue. Trust is what saves venues, just as trust is what saves friendships and marriages. These are all long term relationships. And yes, any British promoters reading this will no doubt grumble about how a lot of the venues on this side of the channel receive government subsidies and thus have a greater freedom to take risks. But I ask myself if the UK’s attitude to music centred more on notions of art and entertainment and less on fashion and popularity whether we might have a healthier live music infrastructure with fewer parasites picking away at anything with an ounce of promise.
Anyway, it was a good gig. An excellent gig in fact. The onstage sound was superb and the audience were very friendly. We talked to a lot of them afterwards in the bar and promised to return.
The great pleasure of the evening, however, was a wholly different one. Minutes before our stage time we were all crowding around a laptop in our dressing room streaming the Glastonbury Festival emerging talent competition. Our label-mates (and good friends) Bridie Jackson & The Arbour were among the eight finalists. Oh, how we applauded as their opening number We Talked Again floated out of the tinny computer speakers, translated digitally through an inadequate internet connection like a sad robot’s memory of imagination. Oh, how we cursed technology and gnashed our teeth when the live feed spluttered and failed and we were left with an empty screen after only two songs.
And then when we got offstage I received a text message from Bridie: “We won. Yep x”
Sometimes good things do happen to good people. And The Arbour are the absolute best. We’re so so happy for them.
Next stop: Vienna, Austria
Vienna: 7 April, 2013
Our van has become something of a plague ship. At the last count there were three different timbres of cough, two pitches of sneeze and the odd brassy toot of a blown nose. We should really hoist a black sail. We are decidedly contagious.
It’s a shame but not unexpected. If one person gets a cold then we’ll all get it sooner or later. It’s no one’s fault. We do our best to stay healthy, the van is well-stocked with fresh fruit and bottles of water but when one spends hours cooped up in a small space every day then any attempt to protect oneself against the germs of others is futile. Add to that the late nights, early starts, long sets and smokey venues and you have one big recipe for a lost voice.
I don’t mind admitting I was particularly grumpy this day. I’ve been sleeping badly anyway so when I first felt that tell-tale clench in the throat I knew the next few shows were going to be a bit of a struggle. The knowledge that I had to be a concentrated ball of fun for a straight ninety minutes that evening meant I opted to spend the day in a near uninterrupted state of complete silence and after soundcheck went for a nap in the van. Apparently the others found a fairground (of all things) and spent the spare hours whizzing around the go-kart track. A curse on their relentless exuberance.
The gig was a success. The sound engineer told us that Vienna audiences are too cool to dance but we managed to get them on their feet by the end. I mostly sang in my low register and compensated for the current limitations in range by trying out some questionable new moves. Luckily no one was injured. It was a pretty exhausting show though and by the end I could taste iron in my coughing. Thought for a moment I’d developed TB but apparently it’s a symptom common in those who have just run a marathon. So I guess that’s alright then.
We packed up the gear as quickly as possible and, after posing for some photos with people who had won tickets to see us in a radio competition, we headed back to the hotel to get a relatively early night (1.00am),
The next day we rose early, determined to see the historic sites of Vienna before hitting the road. I’m glad we did, it has some spectacular architecture. We tend to get a pretty skewed sense of a town’s geography, usually only having time to see the venue and the hotel. So much of the music we listen to today is (however indirectly) influenced by Vienna’s considerable output, it would have been a real waste not to soak up some of the sites, recharging our cultural batteries among the heroic statues of abused mermaids and anguished warhorses.
Next stop: Innsbruck, Austria
Innsbruck: 8 April, 2013
It’s never a good idea to assume you’re going to get a big crowd somewhere just because you had a big crowd the last time you visited. We are living in uncertain times: people change their priorities and change their minds; just because someone likes a band one year doesn’t mean they’ll like it the next.
But, for the time being at least, Innsbruck seems to be a dead cert for us. This was our third time playing here and we always get a big audience, a pretty even mixture of ages and sexes, always a lot of fun.
It was a monster of a show. I hardly need say that being faced with four hundred drunk Austrians shouting “Mother, why did you raise me this way?” at the top of their lungs is quite a surreal experience.
There was even a mosh pit. I don’t think we’ve ever had one of those before. I couldn’t resist throwing myself into it. I haven’t been in one for about twelve years. The sea of bodies swallowed me up hungrily, bouncing me around like a pinball, occasionally grabbing at my arms, slender fingers snaking under my shirt and over my chest, the elbows and hips of strangers nipping at me like the blunted teeth of a blind leviathan. I have some long purple bruises today and my voice is little more than a whisper. But those kind of shows are my favourite – incredibly physical, almost primal experiences.
Still, it’s a relief we are following it with a day off. A lie-in is long overdue!
Day Off: 9 April, 2013
I took advantage of this day of rest to do some essential maintenance on my guitar (there were a few loose connections that were giving me some grief at the last show) so I spent most of the afternoon elbow-deep in the sound hole fiddling with its innards. Ahem.
Fran and Tom had disappeared off with some strangers after the gig and didn’t return to the band apartment until noon, their whereabouts and whatabouts remaining a mystery to everyone (including them).
The others, however, were feeling distinctly more adventurous and set off on a jaunt up the mountain. Bedlam Six guitarist Cleg wrote a short account of his day off here.
Next Stop: Nürnberg, Germany
Nürnberg: 10 April, 2013
Waiting for us in Nürnberg was another familiar face. Indeed, along with Erwin (mentioned a couple of blogs ago) this person has been the single constant sentient factor (outside of the six of us) for all of our tours on the continent (not counting festivals).
This man knows all the words to our songs. It’s really quite breathtaking. I mean that literally… to sing these songs is to be left with no spare breath. I’m seriously considering investing in one of those oxygen masks Dennis Hopper uses in Blue Velvet.
This fellow first saw us in Erfurt in 2011, then made the trek to Dresden to see us in 2012. And now here he is in Nürnberg! I recognised him the moment I got onstage. It’s always good to know there’s at least one ally in the audience. Still, I should not dwell on a single individual when the whole crowd was made up of such smiley dancey people. Again there was no obvious unified demographic here. This is something I find rather comforting.
The next day we went for a walk around the site of the famous Nuremburg rallies, taking in the aborted stadium and grand street. I was looking for a certain ghoulish emotional resonance but none presented itself, for me the stones did not pulse with the disapproval of history or hum with the fall-out of a grim maniacal ambition. I felt no chill beyond the weather. My imagination was left wanting when confronted with such a void, leaning too much upon school history lessons, unable to feel the lingering charge of this fateful spot. In many ways I am glad.
Next stop: Stuttgart
Stuttgart: 11 April, 2013
Bernhardt, the sound engineer at Laboratorium in Stuttgart, looks like a Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas turned roadie and could not better suit this wonderfully peculiar venue (a venue that appears not to have changed at all over the course of its forty-one years in business).
The great thing about being in an odd-looking, odd-sounding, relatively unmarketable band is that one tends to get booked at places with a lot of character. Who wants to play in a soulless black box auditorium with Carling or O2 stamped all over it when you can perform in a building that is clearly someone’s labour of love? Bands are always labours of love – the venues showcasing them should be the same. After all, we’re on the same side and want the same thing: a happy audience and a good time.
This was certainly a happy audience though a little inscrutable for the first few numbers. It was a seated crowd and that always has a big impact on the overall nature of the show. Though there are no stark rules or boundaries that separate different kinds of gig and gig-goer from one another, I find that Bedlam Six shows fall loosely into two camps:
- A dance band sound-tracking morally dubious evenings of seduction, intoxication and confusion.
- A slightly anachronistic recital of musical narratives with grizzly endings to a listening (though not necessarily comprehending) assembly.
This gig was the latter. It felt a bit like music hall but without the jeering. I quickly go into clown mode when confronted with a seated and well-behaved audience. If no one is going to dance then the ring-master must become a court jester, the sage fool speaking truth through witless banter.
I don’t usually drink alcohol before going onstage, but if we’re playing multiple sets (as we were in this instance) I request a few whiskeys to appear after the interval (purely medicinal of course, it helps to kickstart my voice again if it has been worn out from the abuse of act one). In this case I stood onstage in a brief pause between two numbers and drank the first glass with such heedless vim that most of it went in my eye, so I followed the manoeuvre by pouring water in after it (not out of a desire to prolong the visual gag but more out of a desire not to go blind). By this point I was completely drenched and the audience were falling about laughing. Luckily there is a universal pun available for just such occasions, a comedic punctuation mark if you will…
“Apologies ladies and gentlemen, you will no doubt have noticed I have a drinking problem…”
We played until we physically couldn’t play any more. Then, ten minutes after we had retreated into our dressing room the applause was still going on and showed no sign of diminishing. So we wrung the sweat from our sodden shirts and headed out for one more.
It was a hugely enjoyable evening. But I must admit, bed was a particular relief that night!
Next stop: Saarbrücken, Germany
Saarbrücken: 12 April, 2013
Venue managers and gig promoters have all sorts of important tasks to perform if a show is to be a success. Most of these tasks are unseen and often unacknowledged.
There is a secret windowless room in most rock clubs. Usually in the basement. It is little more than a cupboard. This is where money is counted out and receipts are signed. The air is stale and the colours are brown; there is one desk, it is hidden beneath a turf of dirty cups and invoices; the shelves are full of old posters, electrical miscellanea and bits of instruments. If there is more than one seat it is probably a beer crate. This is where one tends to find the manager.
But Christoph Diem, the booker for Sparte4 in Saarbrücken, is not that kind of manager…
Almost all our shows begin with a feeling of uncertainty. A lot of people in the audience have only ever experienced us online (and there is quite a genre chasm between songs like Living In The Aftermath and Three Down, Four To Go) so aren’t completely sure what kind of an event it’s going to be. Plus there are the usual human insecurities: no one wants to be the first person to dance, everyone is too sober to make a fool of themselves early on. So generally for the first few numbers the crowd are a bit on the static side, playing their waiting game.
The place was nearly full, but audiences the world over have a talent for finding nooks and crannies to hide themselves in rather than standing directly in front of the stage. So this is where Christoph stood, a man alone, everyone else two steps behind, lurking just out of sight. As we began our first number he exploded into life, like one of those flailing blow-up wavy-arm giants that can be found outside car showrooms, he quivered and spasmed along to the rhythm, hopping up and down as though the floor were a bed of hot coals.
In no time at all everyone had moved forward, bringing with them their most daring moves. And I watched Christoph as it happened, I watched him become surrounded, watched him slow down as everyone else sped up, watched him slink back and weave his way through the throng, leaving the floor to the customers, disappearing once again into the shadows, the natural habitat of the event promoter. His work there was done.
And what a fun night it was. Hot, messy, animated, cathartic. Just as a rock gig should be.
Next stop: Brussels, Belgium
Brussels: 13 April, 2013
It turns out my mental picture of Brussels differs markedly to the reality. I think this is probably due to years of news stories about grey-faced MEPs shuffling around in buildings made of concrete and glass.
But no. Its cafe culture and daring knitwear and old churches and jazz music and questionable fashion choices and tiny dogs and designer beards and creative driving and little hats perched at rebellious angles.
This was our last show of the tour. And I’m afraid I don’t recall it very well. We’ve been rather well behaved on the whole and all agreed that, since the hotel was walking distance from the venue, we’d enjoy a few drinks once we’d packed up the gear. After all, no gig the next day means we can risk a touch of oblivion.
It seems the venue owners read our minds. After our twenty song set we peeled off our wet shirts and flopped into the dressing room to find our hostess opening a bottle of champagne for us. What followed was a free bar with no conditions. Hours and hours of Mojitos, White Russians, single malts and peculiar greenish concoctions with exotic names.
I don’t remember getting back to the hotel. It was one of those waking-up-still-wearing-shoes kind of mornings.
Next stop: Reality.
Home: 14 April, 2013
Waking up after a tour tends to be accompanied by a certain “and it was all a dream…” sensation. There is no hotel check-out time to adhere to, no strict breakfast hours, no soundcheck in some far away town. For the last few weeks our days and nights have been governed by schedules and sat-nav coordinates. Now we are all, once again, left to our own devices and personal rhythms. The only immediate clue that it all actually happened is the ringing in my ears.
I remember the days leading up to our first tour. I was convinced the band would split up – or at the very least one person would be marooned on some Austrian mountainside. I live alone and have grown accustomed to my own company. Humans are fascinating creatures and I enjoy spending time with them, but I always like to know where the nearest escape route is. The idea of being in the company of half a dozen people for weeks on end with no way out fills me with an acute social claustrophobia.
But we’ve done this a lot now, in the UK and overseas. And we’ve never once come to blows. Yes, there can be the odd snide comment or bitter retort but for the most part we get on very well. I don’t fully understand it. A day spent in the company of someone else is usually enough to induce at least an eye twitch in me – three days and I’m a tangle of rage.
On tour there is never any solitude. Hours in the van followed by load-in and soundcheck at the venue, followed by a meal together, followed by sitting backstage as the audience files in, followed by an hour and a half on stage, followed by the dressing room post-mortem conversation, followed by hanging around the merch stand, followed by load-out and then back to the hotel room (usually two people to a room). I try to grab half an hour to myself between soundcheck and show, exploring the immediate surroundings, but it’s impossible to ever feel truly ALONE.
I suppose one leaves certain bits of oneself at home. There is no space in our LDV Maxus for egos or fussiness, just as there is no room for comfort. When we are on the road that is all we are. It is a strange bubble in which days of the week are meaningless, where we remain constant whilst the surroundings are ever in flux. The van feels like a TARDIS, though one that is smaller on the inside than the outside.
And time itself behaves strangely. By gig three I felt like we’d been touring for weeks, that I’d peaked too soon and that the coming shows would be an exercise in gruesome endurance. But by gig nine I felt we’d barely begun, that to continue onwards indefinitely would be the most natural course: a new town, a new crowd, a new language, forever. Nothing has ever felt so obvious, so simple. Why go home when all that awaits you there is what you left behind?
But a day is all it takes for the cares to burrow back into their established furrows. The freedom of keeping one’s own schedule soon becomes the burden of self-motivation.
Only one thing to do now… book the next tour.