Ah, air sickness. London. Blokes. All of that seems so far away now, even though it's only been three days. We're now in our rock and roll travel vehicle of choice, a van, traveling on my stomach's surface of choice, dry ground. It's a great van. It's one of those new-ish things that look like a big block of cheese with an angled front end. In the US we lustfully call them Sprinters or Freightliners. Over here, they have many different manufacturers, all with a similar body style. This one is a VW, and it belongs to our new German friend / tour manager Sascha. He owns three of them, and he makes a living driving American bands with lofty aspirations of becoming the next Dandy Warhols (without forsaking their hometown American audiences, of course) across Europe. Menomena is currently one of these bands, and we are currently sprawled out across this heavenly vehicle's two spacious bench seats (Brent and I) and comfy loft (Justin). Up front is Sascha, along with our European sound engineer Jonas, who has already sung a certain Weezer anthem twice to let us know what his name is. Except he pronounces it "yo-nas", which is far sexier. He's not carrying the wheel (that's Sascha's job, remember?), but he IS carrying his iPod, and he just rocked us with a new album by a funky duo named Justice. It was really good. It's something my wife would like even more than me though. She loves dancing. And...and...ah, she's still in Portland (brief pause for tearful reflection).
We're driving away from Stockholm, Sweden at the moment. What a wonderful place. We were only there for a day, but it was a great one. Several hours ago, we played the Accelerator Festival, and I had my mind blown by a band from Portland. Unfortunately, it wasn't by my own band. We played rather poorly, actually. The sound onstage was horrendous. Yeah, that's a cop-out, but it really was awful—completely beyond our (or Jonas's) control. We're doing our best to get used to playing on rented equipment for the first time in our lives, and it hasn't been easy. The two different drum sets I've played so far are polar opposites from my trusty kit back home. I could go on with excuses for days, but the fact remains that we just traveled over 5,000 miles to play a crappy set to people who have never seen us before, and the truth hurts.
Back to that Portland band though. They're called The Gossip, and you've probably already heard of them. If you live in Europe, you've definitely heard of them. They're "one of those bands" that tends to do exponentially better on this side of the pond, for some unknown reason. Up until today, all I knew about these folks was that they're fronted by a large woman who has no problem calling herself "fat" and "queer" in the press. Hardly solid ground to judge a band on, I know, so I checked out their performance an hour or so after finishing ours.
I don't know if it was the fact that I've never read anything about this band where the singer's weight wasn't mentioned OR if it was the fact that she was wearing a skin-tight aqua blue body suit onstage today, but the generous element of gyrating, jiggling body mass is definitely the first thing I noticed. It made me think; have I ever seen an overweight woman rocking the mic before? Maybe Missy Elliot (circa 1997)? Or Aretha Franklin? Or Ann Wilson? Yeah, maybe. But I'm pretty sure none of these female icons have ever intentionally threw down the camel toe for an entire concert. That spandex body suit! That wouldn't be flattering on any body type! And yet, this woman is still totally wearing it. Totally going for it, sans reservation. No apparent worry or fear of what any ignorant idiot like myself is thinking, judging, wondering. Am I really this sheltered, or is this nothing short of revolutionary, especially in the self-conscious cesspool that is modern indie rock? Whatever the case, she certainly created a unique visual experience up there. I walked back to the van after the second song, car-crash intrigued but not moved.
As I sat there in our VW waiting for my bandmates, my back to the stage, I started finding myself focusing on the audio portion of the concert. I started noticing how beautiful this singer's voice was. And how she was singing with the same unabashed rawness that she dedicated to her appearance. Then I started noticing the sparse guitar lines expertly weaving around those pitch-perfect vocals, through the clock-like drum patterns, entering the spotlight briefly but never stealing the show from that unearthly angel voice. Then a brief pause between songs, then a quiet, "this is for Aaliyah," before an acapella intro into a cover of "Are You That Somebody?", one of my top-10 favorite songs of all time. I feel embarrassed admitting this, but there I was, alone in the van, choking back tears while the frontwoman nailed that first chorus, "Sometimes I'm goody-goody, right now I'm naughty-naughty!" As soon as she flawlessly rapped Timbaland's part, complete with whispered "baby girl's" and "uh huh's," I was completely wrecked. I got out of the van with Brent and Jonas and we rushed back to the stage in time to see them close with the clincher single, "Standing in the Way of Control." I felt like a giddy teenage music fan again, long before all this ridiculous "I'm in a band" bravado started. Thank you, The Gossip. Portland is lucky to have you, whether we all realize it or not.
Backtracking here, the London show was remarkably better than the Swedish show. For starters, it wasn't a festival, meaning we had more than 45 minutes to load in, sound check, and play our set. The people at the Barfly were amazing, too. We've heard a lot of stories about American bands being greeted by less-than-enthusiastic English crowds, but these awesome folks disproved all of the rumors. None of our music has ever been officially released anywhere in Europe. Yet, there were still people shouting out requests for obscure b-sides including "The Sista Social Theme Song" (?), all with thick British accents. It was very flattering.
Now it's Sunday night and we're in a hotel in Holland after a long string of driving days. Sweden was three days ago, and we've been driving and playing one show here since then. The "one show" was at a festival called Metropolis, and it was the worst yet on this tour. Again, I can't overstate how awful it feels to make a first impression in a foreign country by sucking butt onstage. I hate playing festivals, possibly more than I hate playing in-stores. At least with in-stores, there's a good chance that you're the only band that people (however few) are there to see, and you can take your time setting up onstage (however small) without feeling like you're holding up a gigantic audience that isn't really there to see you in the first place.
Well anyway, there we were in Rotterdam on a giant stage that was divided in half with the sides labeled either "Workers" or "Thinkers." We were on the "Workers" side. Both sides of the stage alternated directly after each other, so that the "Thinkers" were thinking about how to get all of their gear set up and soundchecked while the "Workers" were working at making the most destructive racket ever. I hadn't heard of any of the bands on the entire festival bill, which probably speaks more of my cultural ignorance than of the popularity of the bands (or maybe not). It was our turn to start our set immediately after a loud rock band called The Mighty Roars finished Thinking.
Did I already mention how much I hate festivals? Well, add "playing rented drum sets" to that hate list as well. I'm not even going to bother with going through every detail of what made our set awful. It's over, and I'm just happy to be sitting here in this comfy bed. We went out to a cannabis bar (legally! wow!) and I watched Brent, Justin, Jonas, and Sascha duke it out over a foosball table. The little white ball looked like it was flying at me in 3-D, and the spinning plastic men left neon trails behind their little spinning feet. Overhead, the smiling face of Bob Marley watched over us all from a tattered poster. I ate a Snickers, then four mini bags of Doritos. Man, that was awesome.
We left and went to a rock club called Rotown for the Official Metropolis Afterparty. A band called The Noisettes was playing. It was my first time ever hearing them, and I was rocked to the core. Each of the three members were astoundingly talented, and the singer's voice was powerful and perfectly on key. Good stuff. Thank you Holland, but we need to leave. I'm feeling sluggish. Onto Germany!
We were playing a club called FZW in Dortmund. It was a nice place, great hospitality, great sound in the smallish room. The opening band was called Modulator, and they were all wonderful people who taught us (namely Justin) how to say a few choice phrases in German. I learned how to say "thank you," "good morning" and the proper thing to say after someone sneezes. I am a genius.
There were posters for The Thermals directly next to ours in the hallway. Apparently, our hometown homeboys (and homegirl) were playing two days after us at the same venue. So close and yet so far! Good luck, Thermals.
Christof, our strikingly handsome label boss traveled 4 hours by train from Berlin to be there to cheer us on in Dortmund. He told me stories of how he used to book bands at the FZW club during his former life as a booking agent nearly 20 years ago. Nirvana was on his roster, as were Soundgarden, the Flaming Lips, and Yo La Tengo. Whew. He told a story about Nirvana and Tad touring Europe together for the first time in 1989 on Nirvana's Bleach tour: Apparently, the bands arrived late to the FZW, grumpy about being stuck in traffic for so long that day. Little did they know, it was the same day the Berlin Wall was being torn down, and people were a tad (sorry) more excited about dancing in the street outside the venue than they were headbanging inside to these two obscure bands from Seattle.
We said goodbye to our friends, new (members of the opening band, Robert and Sydney from our gear rental company entitled "Gate To Hell", and the FZW promoter named Ule) and old (Christof & Anna of City Slang, Annette of the band Lancaster and mutual friends with our Portland lovers 31Knots) and headed to a Dortmund youth hostel with Sascha at the helm.
Call me a closed-minded stereotype of an over-privileged Caucasian, but I've never spent the night in a youth hostel, German or otherwise. I've never seen the movie "Hostel", either, which might be a good thing. I have, however, spent a few days at an outdoor camp in the 5th grade, and that's about the closest parallel I can draw to the experience. Justin told me that based on his past experiences, this was a nicer place than usual, so I put my criticisms aside ("there's no freaking jacuzzi in here?!") and curled up on a lower bunk for the night.
In the morning, I treated myself to my first ever common shower (i.e. no dividers, curtains, or modesty) in my entire life...this includes high school, where my Christian gym teacher allowed/encouraged us to wear swimsuits to discourage unfair comparisons and/or "accidental" first experiences. I stripped to a pair of flip flops and was lathered, scrubbed, rinsed, and safely back in the shelter of my towel in approximately 33.2 seconds. So frantic were my movements that I was sweaty once again by the time I finished drying myself off, making myself question the shower's purpose in the first place. Oh well, this trip has been an ode to first experiences.
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Photos: Menomena in Dortmund / Dortmund flier. From Flickr user R.R.R. See her photo gallery here