usa tour diary: march 2011

The following is an up to the moment account of my current tour of the USA. I’ll attempt to add to this most days. The photos I take are on real film so I’ll add those when I develop them somewhere along the line. I’ll borrow some others from my touring partners’ more modern devices.

Wednesday 16th: SYDNEY to HOUSTON

Pays to be late to the airport, there’s no line. Alas: it does mean that I’m the only one who has to share a row of seats of the half empty plane so spend the 9hrs upright while all around recline. The lady next to me is from NZ and on her way to San Francisco to learn how to bake bread with ancient grains. She manages to partially lie down in hers and the vacant seat between us and in her deep slumber stretches out and puts her feet on my lap. I don’t have the heart to wake her, she seems like she’s dreaming with her eye patches and mouth wide open.

First time flying with United; no movies so I read Bob Ellis’ new book and write for the whole trip. I find out I’ve been rerouted to Houston and must find my own way to Austin. Magically it turns out my friend Dave Dondero is playing a show there (at the same club I played last year) that same night with Damien Jurado so I go down to meet him.

There he is onstage, bow-leggedly tapping his foot, finger-picking his way through some new songs, thumbing his signature busy bass line. There’s one about how his guitar has ruined his life and how he wants to wring it’s skinny neck. He’s been up all the night before drinking so is struggling to make his body work the way he wants it and the high pitched pulse off the lights is throwing him off, but he’s as compelling as always and it’s good to see him.

I go for a walk to a nearby service station to find food and it’s closed. The streets are eerily dark and deserted. A homeless guy across the street spots me and calls out “Hey man!” and starts running towards me. He probably only wants money for food but having only just arrived I only have 20 dollar bills and don’t think asking him for change would be wise. Plus there’s not another soul around and I’m scared. I decide to run.
I nearly make the club when he catches up with me and puts his hand on my shoulder. “Hey man, I need some money.” For some reason my only act of self defense is to answer him with some of the basic Swedish I know, “Jag skulle vilja ha en öl tack (Can I have a beer please?).” He looks confused and says sorry and moves along.

A few songs in to DJ’s set Dave says we’re leaving. The club have stiffed him and he’s been paid $39.

He’s traveling with instrumental wiz Franz Nicolay and we stay in the house of one of his friends, a couple who run a printing business deep in the burbs. I’m on an unevenly cushioned couch in the shed but a bed of nails would be fine at this stage, and I slip into a deep delicious sleep hearing a rooster crow from some Garden of Gethsemane nearby.


Thursday 17th: AUSTIN

We get breakfast at the Shell petrol station (the fresh food people) and head north. We pass a canary-yellow Chevrolet Malibu and Dave says that was the very same make of car he first owned at 15, though his a rusted out version. He and his buddy Michael Raines (who is the namesake of Dave’s great song) got it off a drug dealer in New Jersey.

“So is that the car from the line ‘cool car crashes in the summertime’?” I ask him.

“The very one. We were out driving around, Michael was at the wheel. We hit a manhole cover and rolled it three times.”

“Geeze, you were lucky then.”

“Michael lost his big toe in that crash. I dislocated my shoulder and had glass in my head. We just left it sitting there and ran off… the car had no plates and we didn’t have a license. Michael gets home and reports the car as stolen. The cops come round to his house and see his banged up foot – he’s still got blood all over him – and they say ‘wait a minute, you crashed that car’ and so he took the whole rap.”

“Good friend.”

“Yeah,” Dave continues sternly, “and his Step-dad came home and beat the living shit out of him for it. He had two black eyes.”

“Have you seen him lately?” I wanna know.

“No way man, not since back then. By the time he was 16 he’d moved out of home and was making money dealing coke, the only 16 year old I knew to have his own apartment. He got done for real this time and went to jail. I once went back to his Mom’s house and she took one look at me and said Michael doesn’t live here anymore and slammed the door in my face. And that was that.”

“Probably best to remain a childhood memory. I was gonna request Michael Raines last night. Damn.”

“You should have. I would’ve played it.”

As we sped towards Austin and the sonically gargantuan Sxsw festival my stomach tightened like it does some New Years Eves at the prospect of ‘enforced fun'(TM). Dave and Franz drop me at the hotel where I meet up with Shelley Short who I’ll be traveling with for the next four weeks. Her agent Mary has kindly offered us space in the apartment she’s booked for herself. Steph Hughes our drummer arrives soon after having endured a hellish two day transit from Australia that included a bad nights sleep on the bare carpet at Chicago airport. She’s chipper considering and is excited to be here, her first visit to the USA.

We collect our instruments, grit our teeth and head into the bleeding cacophony that is downtown Austin this one week of the year. Steph and I back up Shelley on her set in a charming little theater, me on banjo and backing vocals. We haven’t rehearsed but it falls together nicely.

I rush a few doors up to prepare for my official festival appearance as part of the Yep Roc showcase. the handsome young Norwegian Sondre Lerche is playing a rousing set with members of Midlake backing him. He’s a guitar wizard, one who’s not afraid of the diminished chord, and will be a hard act to follow.

For us the sound is terrible, there’s ringing feedback for the whole set, and we’re battling with the noise spill of a funk band somewhere else in the building.

During Butterfly Bones an audience member climbs the stairs to the stage confidently and strides up to the mic. The sound guy thinks he’s part of our band so turns his mic up. For a minute I think this guy a fan and that he’s about to gracefully launch into the second verse. Instead he starts a high pitched wailing noise like a, well, whale. Part of me is happy that my music can inspire people to creatively express themselves, however that may be, but another part of me wants this idiot gone and can’t believe it takes security more than a minute to realise this isn’t part of the show. He gets ejected.

Afterwards Steph and I make good use of the cheap tequila (1800 is about $15 at home, $6 here) which gives us fire in the belly literally and metaphorically and we yak excitedly to each other and anyone else who’ll listen.

We end up lying in a park under the glow of the night-lit Texas Capital Building and its pink-granited grandeur. Search the sky for what stars are available and discuss our lives and then climb some nearby statues and take photos.

The tequila in our brains tells us it would be a good idea to sleep the warm night in the park, forsaking the comfortable bed awaiting us a few blocks away. We thankfully come to our senses and stumble back to fall asleep in front of a TV beaming out the homoerotic shower scene of the film Backdraft and its smooth fresh-skinned Billy Baldwin.


Friday 18th: AUSTIN

Phone rings me awake and it’s Mike from Yep Roc summoning me to an early interview that I’d drunkenly agreed to last night so I schlep with instruments through early eager punters and last nights detritus to the foyer of the Hilton Hotel. Led upstairs to a sumptuous lounge, a lapel mic threaded through my shirt I answer questions to a video camera raccoon eyed, dry mouthed and gravelly voiced, while the diminutive softly spoken British folk singer Alessi’s Ark waits nearby for her turn.

Rush to a cab to make my first show, a morning set on a small stage outside a Whole Foods market. The cabbie has his belongings and rubbish strewn across the front passenger seat and I tell him how most Australians prefer to ride up there lest someone think them pretentiously pretending they’re being chauffeured.

He said, “Some Texans prefer the front seat but that’s about all here in America. I hate people sitting up here, they break things and touch my shit.” He thought about it for a second and added that for a pretty girl he’d clear the seat and then informed me about how he’s a world class musician and passed me back photos of various guitars and pet dogs he owns.

I buy a breakfast of Kombucha and a banana from the Whole Foods and set up to play. There’s people spread around on tables and on the ground eating or catching morning sun rays. I remember this from last year: the evil scavenging birds swooping down frightening children and stealing scraps. They’ve evolved to prefer expensive health foods and will therefore become aggressive if they can’t get it. It is good food here though, and you tend to find a better quality bin-diver outside of these places. I saw a very well dressed guy with a feather in the band of his trilby hat trawl through one to find some chip crumbs in the bottom of a packet and a half eaten tofu salad.

Shelley is already there, fresh and well slept. She tells me the strafing birds are called ‘Grackles.’ Steph wanders in like a zombie, staring blankly into the middle distance and pacing back and forth. It’s a strange set but it’s comforting to see some familiar faces out there. I spy the family who told me last year they use my songFalling Aeroplanes to induce sleep in their youngest boy.

Later I go up to a place called Treehouse, a stage on the roof of a bar, where Dave Dondero is playing an early afternoon set and has asked me to accompany him on banjo. It’s completely exposed and at the mercy of the relentless blaring sun and Dave is pissed off. “This is a joke, man. I watched Mark Eitzel here yesterday struggle in this heat,” and then he thought about it and said, “there’s a little bit of shade right in the corner, let’s play under there.” So we moved all the sound equipment back against the wall and hunkered in a corner. The poor crimson sunburned sound guy didn’t try and argue. A young girl sat on the front of the stage and drew a sketch of us while we played as if we were in court.

Dave finished the set with a new crowd favourite Nobody Likes Your Doggie Like You Do with an intro, “This is not an anti dog song. It’s pro canine.”

After dark I meet up with Steph and we decide to go to a bar to attempt a hair of the dog to see if it will assuage our hangovers and make right again our foggy brains and shaky limbs. We sit on rocking chairs outside and sup the best tequila we can find and it seems to almost work.

I’ve done two Australian tours with Steph now but in the larger group it can hard to get to know someone in any significant way. I’ve learned more about her in these past two days. What a good human she is; a pure soul. A loquacious mischievous imp with broad Australian Steve Irwin vowels who coolly accepts what the world offers but still is not afraid to say when it’s not right. Her catchphrase at the moment is ’nuff said.’

The tequila hasn’t really helped so we don’t risk another. Instead we go back to the Treehouse and see my alt-country/bluegrass musician friends Sean Walsh and Johnny Lam in their more southern rock style outfit National Reserve. They blast out their set under the stars of Austin all playing their hearts out, falling all over each other smiling wildly and chewing gum. Better still there’s guitarmonies! These guys live for their music and seem to be always speeding for hours through the night from their homes in Brooklyn to just barely make the show, play it and then pack up and drive home again.

Steph begs off back to the apartment to bed and I’m hanging by a thread too, exhausted. I decide instead to go meet the Yep Roc gang at the Presbyterian Church to watch one of their new signings. Although he was Mojo magazine’s album of the year last year I’d never heard of John Grant. I lolled with heavy eyelids in the pew, doodling with a tiny pencil on a collection envelope and waited.

A middle-aged lightly bearded man took the altar/stage and the church erupted into applause. He sincerely thanked people for coming and his backing band started up (Midlake once again). This was the revelation I’d been looking for amongst the sea of sound of these past days. His voice was like soul balm and did more good towards soothing my nerves than any tequila could. Varnish-smooth baritonal elongated notes he sung with a gentle vibrato straight out of a 70’s AM radio station. For a moment I even forgot where I sat, was brought back to reality when he played a song called Jesus Christ Hates Faggots and I wondered what was going through his head as he sang under the giant wooden cross. He answered this with some banter as it finished, “It feels strange singing that song given this setting,” and the crowd acknowledged with muted laughter.

As I walked home along a street throbbing with bar room blues bands I put my fingers in my ears so the sound pollution wouldn’t contaminate my recent memory. Let the sounds of John Grant linger in my brain for just a little while.


Saturday 19th: AUSTIN (still)

Shelley has a day show in a boutique clothing store over in the east of the city so I walk there from town, under the Freeway and past tacquerias and biker bars. It feels like a poorer neighbourhood and brightly painted amateur advertisements fresco the brick walls. It’s a pleasing aesthetic and is like walking through a living Naïve Art gallery. A lot of the shops here are inside peoples houses and I pass one that has different pinatas hanging on the porch on display including one fashioned as Justin Beiber.

I find the house and the girls out the back sitting against a shed in the sun. There’s a band playing and others setting up inside the shop itself, people mingling in little groups here and there. I notice the guitarist has pretty much the exact outfit as me (brown shoes, black jeans, blue patterned shirt) so I self-consciously go buy another shirt off the rack from inside to mix it up a bit.

We prepare for Shelley’s set in the parlour room inside and play to a respectful crowd sitting on the floor, while the organisers hand out free organic pizza and iced tea. The bare wood floored acoustics are perfect for Shelley’s voice and the audience are impressed.

French pop duo Herman Dune are playing a few blocks down in the backyard of an Art book store so I make a second attempt to go watch them. Yesterday I’d attempted to see their show in a designer furniture shop but halfway through the second song the soundguy rudely walked onstage and shouted in drummer Néman’s ear that they had five minutes left to play. He acknowledged him with a nod but then the tactless invader strode up the front to lead-singer David-Ivar and did the same. Néman stopped drumming instantly and said, “What the fuck? That’s it, we don’t play any more songs now,” and the crowd protested and all eyes were on the seemingly dim witted engineer. As he walked past me I asked, “Why did you do that?” and he just flipped me the bird and kept walking.

Nonetheless it’s great to finally meet Herman Dune, after owning and enjoying their albums and having mutual friends. This time I get to see a full set lying on the grass by the stage. Afterwards David-Ivar said, “Hey, I recognise you from the photo on your record cover,” and explained they’d recorded in Portland just as I’d finished I Will Love You At All there and had been given a copy. They invite me to go night swimming after their set at Barton Springs. It’s a tough decision but I forgo to see Bright Eyes instead.

Dave Dondero calls to say he missed his set last night after getting drunk and throwing a beer at a Hip Hop band and consequently getting roughed up by the bouncers and thrown into an alley. “Was a bad scene. I had to call the place I was supposed to be playing and say ‘I’m really not in any shape to perform tonight.’”

“Are you okay now?” I worry about him.

“I’ve just got to get out of this town man,” he sounds strung out.

“Well I hope to get to see you before you go”

I head across the bridge to the massive stage by the river and Bright Eyes start playing as the sun is going down and halfway through their set some stranger comes over to me, tugs my sleeve and points to the horizon and exclaims, “Dude, look at the moon!” and holy moly, there is it huge and yellow, I’ve never seen it that big before. “Super Moon!” he clarifies before running off to alert others obliviously watching the band (find out later it’s the closest the moon has been to the earth in nearly two decades).

There’s cameras on huge swinging cranes filming the band and Conor Oberst’s face looms large on big screens either side of the stage. I notice there’s a woman standing just in front of them on a platform energetically using sign language to convey the lyrics for the deaf in the audience. I wonder if she learned all the songs before the show or is winging it as Conor sings them? It’s good to hear songs off their new album and I’m pleased when they play one of their old classics Bowl of Oranges.

I meet up with Shelley and Steph again in the alley behind last night’s venue and we rest for a while on a large rectangle of discarded carpet in the gutter whilst nearby 15 cops wrestle one drunk guy to the ground and cuff him. Shelley’s usual exterior of cool composure is forgotten as she gushes about standing in queue with Michael Cera a few minutes ago.

“Oh my god, I just froze, and the line was really long and slow so then I couldn’t help myself and turned around and said ‘I really love Arrested Development’ and he was like ‘Oh thank you very much,”’ her face is brighter than the super moon. “So we ordered the same coffee and they came at the same time and he said ‘is this mine?’ and ran his hand over the lid,” she really is glowing, “So guys, he touched my coffee!”

Next to see our Portland friends in the band Weinland as they’ve asked Shelley to sing backing vocals on a track. Some tequila: Sheph and I dance and try and distract her and make her laugh. More tequila: we chatter away and do it with enthusiasm, to ourselves and when Weinland get off stage to them too. Brian Wright who played drums on my last album is playing for them now and it’s good to see him. He looks sharp, like he’s just stepped off the set of Mad Men (I imagine…never seen it!), and has a haircut you could set your watch to. Have known him a couple of years now and on my first day in Portland staying at his house he insisted we both sit down and listen to Steely Dan’s Aja on vinyl from go to whoa and specified in detail the technical idiosyncratic differences between each of the six session drummers used on the album.

The song Home At Last comes on and he asks me, “This is Bernard Purdie playing on this one.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Oh man, you’ve never heard of the ‘Purdie Shuffle’?” he asks, “he uses it on Toto’s Africa as well.”

It’s all over suddenly and we get picked up by our local friends Carrie and Andy and taxied back to their apartment to sleep on their comfy couches for our last night in town.


Sunday 20th: AUSTIN

I met Carrie about a year ago when she interviewed me for a radio station in Austin and took me aback with some of the most intimately researched questions I’d ever been faced with. I felt a little embarrassed that she’d put more thought into my lyrics and songs than I did writing them. Since then we’ve become friends and she’s been ever helpful; promoting, feeding and housing us, bringing her friends to see us play, printing out maps of pinball machines in the area. This morning we wake up in her lounge room and she brews us coffee and has croissants and travel packs prepared for us of rice chips and oranges.

She drives us to the car hire company to pick up what we be our chariot for the next 4 weeks: a stunted little white Ford Fiesta. We scratch our heads and wonder how we’re gonna fit everything in it, especially as Steph is still daily scouring Craigslist for a drum kit to buy so she has something to hit for the upcoming shows.

A quick couple of laps in the chilly waters of Barton Springs before we drive out into America, having had our fill of Austin for now.

The girls grant me a half hour at a pinball arcade (called Pinballz Arcade) Carrie has told me about on the outskirts. When I walk through the door my mind is blown. There’s over 80 tables from the 70s through to now; my head is spinning with all the possibilities that lie before me. I play my first ever game of Shrek and then go back in time to try some of the older classics Lost World and Meteor.

We get back in the car but the traffic is glacial, like everyone is fleeing some disaster behind us. Somehow it approaches midnight and it feels pointless and we don’t end up getting far at all and surrender to an exit that spits us out to a one star hotel in a place called Waco. I remembered watching the news broadcasts of the siege there in the early 90s and what sticks in my mind most is a few seconds of footage they used to play out to the commercial of a shirtless David Koresh strumming his guitar and singing a folk song he wrote, ‘..there’s a mad man living in Waco…’

I quiz the girl checking us in about it while another mysterious woman in hair curlers stares at us and leans on an old broken piano in the corner, “Do you get sick of travelers asking you about it?”
She seemed vaguely amused and replied, “Not really, you’re the first. It wasn’t in Waco as such, happened in a little place north west of here. I don’t remember it really, I was just a kid.”

Our room smelled exactly how it looked and Radha Mitchell was on TV facing off against Vin Diesel and a legion of flying killers on a sunless planet. I decide to go for a walk around the neighbourhood but it feels sketchy and strange. There’s a horror movie playing on a portable television in the back of a laundromat and I watch it through the window and try and work out what it could be. Cars slow down to check me out and there’s hooded figures skulking around in the dark. I hurry back to the room and much needed sleep, past the motel playground of two swings with their seats slashed and chains knotted around each other in a vandalised tryst.

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