I’M watching a man weave through the gridlocked traffic on Linden Boulevard, New York City.
He’s holding a big cardboard sign that reads: “EX VETERAN – NEED FOOD/WORK.” He’s walking quickly down the middle of the road, checking for taxis and Ubers full of tourists on the way to the airport.
After making eye contact with someone, he’ll put the sign between his knees and produce a can of Coke or Dr Pepper from his backpack. He can pull off this pirouette in about a second.
He approaches our car as the dark clouds that have been threatening New York all day open up, fat raindrops of sleet obscure his features through the windscreen. The traffic starts up. I see him throw his waterlogged sign to the gutter and then he’s gone.
Fearing the American healthcare system, we establish a vitamin schedule.
It’s the last day of
Will and I travelled light, with only a small backpack each for three weeks on the road. We later figured out we only had approximately two-and-a-half changes of clothing each.
Fearing the American healthcare system, we established a vitamin schedule. Two chewable tablets of vitamin C and one tablet of B12 to be taken with water per day.
I still got sick.
Our first show of the tour is in a day’s time at a venue called Dante’s.
Instead of checking our music equipment in as luggage like normal people we’ve sent it all to a DHL express point adjacent to Portland Airport. Four-thousand dollars of essential and irreplaceable music gear, crucial to the next three weeks of touring, is traveling the high seas in a shipping container that should in theory arrive intact in Portland at the same time as us.
The DHL express point is in a very remote part of the airport, it takes a bus and a taxi to get there. We learn that only half of our gear has arrived, and the rest is somewhere in the Portland international complex, delayed by some Kafka-esque level of bureaucracy. It also starts to snow. Will has never seen snow before.
Our initial impressions of America are pleasant. The Land Of The Free (with 20 percent tip). Portland is pleasant and sleepy, here hipsters of all kinds have learnt to co-exist with themselves. We eat boutique burgers for dinner and watch a woman vomit on the bus on the way back to the DHL express point the following day.
Luckily the remainder of our gear has arrived intact. I almost cry with relief as all our equipment boots up on the floor of our hostel room. Our fears were baseless and now we’re off to play with The Chills. Our close friends and label managers, Jordanne and Cody, pull up to the venue in a van driven by the support band,
Cotillon is fronted by a guy by the name of Jordan Corso, who has put together The Chills’ whole North America tour through his label Modern Sky. It’s thanks to the holy trinity of Jordan, Jordanne and Cody that we’ve managed to look this good on paper. It’s an emotional reunion.
Dante’s is cold. There is a fire pit complete with a stone skull in the corner of the bar. It’s here that we meet The Chills for the first time. There is none of the ego or bloated bravado that accompanies bands of their vintage and reputation.
Among the group is a younger sound guy, a manager and a tour manager. They are running a highly efficient operation that supposedly involved a handwritten letter from Jacinta Ardern to bring them over to the US.
I steal and drink some waylaid “musicians’ tea” left behind on a trestle table in the greenroom before we play. We play well.
The sound is amazing, and we capitalize on the fact that all our gear is in working order. The room is already more than half full at this point and surprised by what they’re seeing. Upon leaving the stage, Will and I are presented with a block of Whittaker’s chocolate each by Martin Phillips, the lead singer of The Chills.
Later we all go out drinking at a strange Tiki themed karaoke bar in the outskirts of Portland. We learn that that American shots are at least double the size of their Australian counterparts.
There are three rules in the van. No eating, no drinking, and no singing.
I wake up feeling sick. We’ve arranged to hitch a ride with in the Cotillon van to the next show in Seattle. We stop at a Whole Foods and I nearly vomit in yogurt isle. The tour has started.
There are three rules in the van. No eating, no drinking, and no singing. All I can think about is my throat, as my hangover solidifies into a wet cough.
Singers have a tortured relationship with their voice on tour; carelessness can turn a night of celebration into a debt with exponential interest. Drummers, however, usually have the stamina of a horse.
America is the place of Will’s dreams and Seattle is his paddock. He breaks rules one and three in quick succession and nobody has the balls to stop him.
WE arrive in Seattle just past 2pm. The sun has already started to set as we begin unloading the van.
We’re playing at a place called Sunset Tavern. It’s adorned with a vague nautical theme, complete with portholes and lifejackets.
Nobody has booked anywhere to stay yet and motel prices are steep. We put that out of our minds as hour of our set approaches. Fearing that the room might be slower to fill up than Portland, I give our door tickets to some strangers in the bar. They haven’t heard of The Chills but are delighted at the offer.
We’ve guaranteed that at least four people will see our set.
Fortunately, the room does fill up as we play. The reception is weaker than in Portland, but we have four people in the front row screaming with applause after each song finishes. The gambit paid off. Later we discover that one of the strangers we recruited turns out to be an ex-Olympic swimmer. He’s caught trying to break into the green room for the third time and promptly turfed out by The Chill’s tour manager.
Everyone’s mind turns again to accommodation. We split up and head to a motel on the outskirts of town. We’ve secured a cheap price based on the lie that only two people will be using the room. Jordanne and I hide in the car park while Cody and Will finalise the details in the lobby.
Once inside we begin planning what will be the hardest part of the tour. We have a show in San Francisco the next day, followed by another in LA. Both will involve very early flights and friend’s couches for accommodation. Worse, we discover that daylight savings has just started; our nights sleep has been reduced from four hours to three. My throat feels like it’s getting worse.
We’re woken from our sleep by four alarms going off in unison. Cody nabs the first shower while we pile our belongings back into our backpacks, making a dazed inventory of power adapters and toothbrushes. Will calls an Uber, which arrives prematurely. Someone starts bashing on the door. It’s the owner of the motel.
“That prick tried to walk in on me while I was having a shower."
Check out is apparently at 8am and if we stay any longer, we’ll be charged for another night. Jordanne hasn’t started packing yet and is demanding a shower. Both her and Cody have two massive shell suitcases, open with their contents spilled across the room.
Will and I decide to wait in the car. Being inside the car does nothing to settle our anxieties. All we can think about is the time it will take to get to the airport minus the time it will take Jordanne and Cody to emerge.
The meter is running, we can make check in if we leave in 10 minutes. Cody enters the car without Jordanne. We watch the motel manager march back up to our old room from the office. A screaming match ensues, one that the motel managers loses. We’re looking up the next flight available flight to San Francisco when Jordanne enters the car.
“That prick tried to walk in on me while I was having a shower.”
San Francisco, California
WE all sleep for the entire duration of the flight to San Fran. I wake up as the wheels of the plane bounce off the tarmac.
I’m confused for a moment because I think I should still be in my motel room in Seattle and then terrified because I think the plane is crashing.
We learn upon exiting the airport that Cody hasn’t actually secured accommodation in San Fran. Regardless, we make our way to his friend David’s house in Oakland. We meet him at a diner up the block from his house, he instantly offers us accommodation for the night. Gratitude doesn’t even cover it. At that moment we’re all in love with David Castillo.
The show is at an art space called Hit Gallery in the downtown area. It’s a lovely room, with displays from artists over two floors and an impromptu stage set up on the top floor. We’re too bent from lack of sleep to appreciate this; culture shock hits us like a truck as we try and buy food on mission street. I eat a bean burrito the size of my head. It doesn’t sit well. I discover there’s only one bathroom with no toilet paper at the gallery.
We also discover that everything going into the PA comes out sounding like a hateful angry fart. Sleep exhaustion makes all these problems matter-of-fact. Toilet paper is bought, and we decide to run the drums and bass through guitar amps. The gallery begins to fill up with people. My cough has turned from wet to dry.
We also discover that everything going into the PA comes out sounding like a hateful angry fart.
Once again, the show goes surprisingly well. The hate-fart PA adorns my vocals with a distorted scorn while the guitar amps run hot like glass cannons behind us. Will breaks Olympic records for staying in time with a drum machine he can’t hear. I make a badly received joke about San Franciscans and Australian’s mutual hatred of bushfires. We’ve earned a delicious five-hour sleep before our next flight tomorrow morning.
Los Angeles, California
LA feels like Groundhog Day. Another early flight, another person’s couch we haven’t asked to stay on yet.
With the money we made from Hit Gallery, we rent a car. It’s a big white Dodge van and ends up costing more than we expected, but being inside a car in America is such an intoxicating feeling that any begrudging feelings of frugality are washed away.
We hoot as the airport disappears behind us and impressions of palm trees and taco trucks start to blur into one another through the passenger-side windows.
Cody’s friend in LA is Jonny Kosmo. He navigates to his house in Highland Park from memory. Jonny is a talented musician and recording engineer with a mini-mansion in the heart of ‘new’ LA.
The house is too good to be true. Every inch of space is decorated with framed tour posters and colourful pop-art. Jonny catches us ogling the leather couch in the living room. Before Cody can say it, the penny drops. “So do ya’ll need somewhere to stay for the night?”
THE gig tonight is at a somewhat defunct bowling alley called “All Star Lanes”. It’s almost identical to the alley from The Big Lebowski. We’re devastated to find out that we don’t play near the actual lanes, but in a separate room next door to the bowling alley’s restaurant.
We lug a PA from Jonny’s house and retrieve a drum-kit from a rehearsal space. It’s a more intimate show, the audience consisting mainly of the other bands on the line-up. PC Cherry are first up, highlights include an amazing cover of Porno’s for Pyros’
Finally, as we’re about to play, we’re told by an exhausted bar manager that the venue is due to shut in five minutes. We play for 15 then carry everything back into the van.
WE spend the day before SXSW driving out to Joshua Tree and the night attempting to heat up the Airbnb’s hot tub. The task becomes Cody’s Moby Dick. Time in Joshua Tree stretches and snaps like an elastic band.
Suddenly it’s 4pm the next day and we’re back at the rental place near the airport trying to pick out the traces of firewood from the backseat of the Dodge, late for the plane to Austin.
IT’S always terrifying arriving in a new city at 11pm.
Despite our well-established system of navigating airports, it takes us longer to find the ride-share section of the terminal than usual.
By the time we arrive at our motel, it’s 1am. Motels are like developing countries in the sense that they often include blatantly false terms in their titles. The “Deluxe” motor inn has a sign on the front of the lobby that states: “No Children”.
It’s our first warning. Our second warning comes when the attendant asks us for our pin number when we opt to pay via credit card. He smiles and shrugs when we refuse. Some locals try to sell us fentanyl while we look for an ATM machine. Jordanne finally finds a better place up the road for $100 USD more. It becomes our haven for the next four days.
It’s SXSW day one and we’re playing three shows across a 21-mile radius of a very unfamiliar Austin, Texas. Our first show is the Aussie BBQ, put together by Sounds Australia in the centre of town.
We trade war stories with some friendly faces – it’s strange to be among Australians again. We play the small stage at the front of the venue and everything sounds fantastic, it’s a relief to be playing proper stages.
We’re off to the outskirts of Austin, heading for the D0512 lounge. The venue is in a beautiful sunny pocket of outer Austin, complete with deckchairs and eskies in easy reach. We are treated like royalty.
We do five songs and they film two, the room fills up with locals. We’re approached by the owner of the lounge, he offers us more drinks, food, and B12 shots. He doesn’t take no for an answer and before we know it a guy with a mullet is helping us break our first commandment of “no needles on tour”. He assures us he’s a paramedic.
Running on adrenaline and B12, we head to our final show at a house party on the other side of the outskirts of Austin. It’s close to 12pm when we discover the house party is hosting a speed metal festival and we’ve been mistakenly booked as the headliner.
What follows is the single most difficult experience of my musical career. For starters, the show is running two hours behind, pushing our performance back to 2am.
Our lucky streak of excellent stages is broken by a PA suffering so many technical ailments that it would be euthanised if it were sentient. The band before us starts their set by stating, “We want some Texas pussy!” As the last guitar harmonies ring out, the band begin putting everything on stage back into their vans parked at the front of the venue.
Despite our pleas, they refuse to let us borrow anything, so we do a trade for temporary use of a drum-kit and bass amp. The PA gives out on us multiple times throughout the set and the bass-amp dies somewhere between our last songs. We go straight home to bed.
The band before us starts their set by stating, “We want some Texas pussy!”
DAY two of SXSW is more consistent than the first. We play another three shows, including our showcase with Modern Sky.
Here we’re reunited with Jordan Corso and The Chills. Fully recovered from my cough, we celebrate by breaking into a party at a castle in one of the more affluent areas of Austin. Somehow, it’s mostly populated by other uninvited Australians.
The next day we take Jordanne and Cody out as a way of saying thanks before our flight. We’re parting ways once again when we reach New York.
When Jordanne was initially booking the New York act of the tour, nobody wanted to play with us. And then, by some miracle, Martin Rev – the father of synth-punk, the backbone of Suicide – agreed to play. American bands started to reply to our emails again.
We spend the next few nights handing out fliers to whoever would take them. We leave them in bars, record shops, and restaurants. We convince pizza parlour owners to let us stick posters in their front windows.
On the night of the show, as we descend the stairs, we encounter Martin finishing his soundcheck. He looks slightly like a basset hound, complete with drooping cheeks and curly dark grey hair. We give sheepish hellos and start unpacking our gear onto the stage.
The audience members slowly arriving down the stairs are special: middle-aged people in militant berets, young Suicide fans in sneakers and dirty t-shirts, and the editor of Billboard Magazine.
By the time he’s on stage Martin Rev’s whole body has transformed. What I took for flab in his arms are now biceps, bulging against the leather one piece he’s squeezed his torso into. His eyes and basset hound cheeks are hidden behind a thick pair of dark sunglasses. He’s punching the rental keyboard and screaming. We look on with equal parts amazement and horror.
There are no spaces between songs, each one collides headfirst into the next. I’ve never seen anything like it. He plays for two hours.
Afterwards we wait around for a photo. He’s back into casual attire sans the sunglasses that stay fixed in place. We talk about synthesizers and pizza. I feel the air slowly running out of him until he’s back to the man I met at soundcheck.
As for our set, I don’t remember much. My thoughts were on these people and their lives. I remember thinking that you can’t help comparing yourself to every new person you meet. It’s almost automatic. Your goals, your sense of humour, your taste, all neatly stacked up against theirs.
Likewise, a room full of people who have never heard of you will decide in an instant if you’re any good. What you remind them of, for better or worse. Judgement. Your entire life is decided like that.
And then our set is over.