Musings on border control, the alcohol industry, and breaking the fourth wall.
During the past week, we covered the West Coast segment of our tour: Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. This part of the tour was (with one exception) more fun than the Prairies and less driving-intensive. Seeing the ocean has a pretty huge positive psychological effect for some reason.
No changes to my diet or sobriety. If anything, I've become so used to not eating meat and dairy and to being sober that I don't even think about it anymore. Alcohol was especially a temptation when I first stopped drinking it, but now my desire for it is more or less completely gone. When I'm away from all intoxicants for long enough, a sober state of mind starts to feel multi-layered, psychedelic, and confusing enough as it is.
During this part of the tour I also got more into the groove of being in a new city, playing a show, and talking to different people every night. At the beginning of a tour, it always takes a few shows to get used to all of these things. I don't think I ever really get used to it, but it gets easier and more fun/less jarring. This is also the first tour where almost as soon as it got underway, I started thinking about being back home. By the time we got to Portland (and especially since Neil had to leave the tour), I'd been enjoying the tour while simultaneously counting down the shows at least until we get to New York, when it will feel like we are nearly finished. Touring was a novelty in the first part of the year, but at this point, it feels like something I am deliberately choosing to do, and with that thought comes a clearer perspective on the sacrifices that go into being on the road so much. I am looking forward to the POP Montreal festival, because I will be able to go to a show and see the music without having to perform.
When doing support tours, it was easy to not think precisely about what the activity I was engaging in meant in a broader context. My thought process would be, "What am I doing as a touring musician? I'm touring because that's what we're supposed to do, and in order to be able to do our own tours in the future." Now that we are doing our own tour, I'm face-to-face with the purpose and meaning of the whole thing. For some people at this stage of existence as a band, the answer is to get to the next level of existence, to play 500-1000 caps, then 1000-2000 caps, and so on. I'm realizing that people pay for a ticket to see us play, and we have the responsibility to make them feel like we were worth it. I am convinced that this should extend beyond playing the songs—it involves connecting with people as much as possible. As a result of this realization, I am becoming aware of things that can stand in the way of this.
Songs should speak about things that I think are worth speaking about, and worth other people thinking about. That is not to say that I am important and worth listening to, just that it is the responsibility of the musician or artist to exercise as much consideration as possible over the intentions of their music. When all the auxiliary and secondary aspects of the music industry are taken out of the equation, all that is left is a musician with their music and intentions, and the audience with its interest and participation in those intentions. The music should ideally be useful for this audience.
These were the themes of this segment of the tour:
Our Tour Manager Neil's Untimely Departure
When we crossed the border on August 20th, the day after our Vancouver show, the border guard was suspicious of Neil's possible involvement in our tour, and because he did not possess as visa to work in the U.S., we were brought in for secondary inspection.
Before we even spoke to anyone, we waited in line for almost an hour, including at least half that amount of time at the very front of our line. We spoke to an agent, who told us to wait for a verdict. We waited for another full hour while the guards changed shifts, and our "case" was transferred to another guard. We then spoke to the new guard and went over everything again. He asked for the keys to the car then went outside and searched it. In the car he found evidence that Neil was doing work on the tour and so made the decision to prevent him from entering the U.S.
By this time, we had been at the border for three and a half hours, so Matt and I were about to be late for our show in Seattle. Neil got his stuff out of the car, we all hugged, and the border guard led him over to the Canadian side to be sorted out for transport back to Vancouver. Matt and I drove away in shock and made it to Barboza in Seattle in time for a quick soundcheck before doors. I was suddenly completely unconcerned with stressful aspects of the show that would otherwise bother me. We dressed in black in a gesture of "mourning" the loss of Neil and played the show.
That night we were already planning his second entrance attempt. He booked a nonrefundable ticket from Vancouver to San Francisco for Aug. 22nd, and a refundable ticket from San Francisco to Montreal a week later so they would not be concerned about his intended departure date. We took every precaution in trying to get him across, but we knew that because he had tried recently and officially been denied that he would be flagged and that, consequently, crossing would be difficult.
Matt and I split tour manager duties during the Seattle and Portland shows temporarily, expecting Neil's return for the Santa Cruz show. As we were driving from Portland to San Francisco, I got a text from Neil that said, "No dice." I subsequently lost service for about half an hour. As a result, Matt and I have taken over all tasks that a TM would do, such as tour accounting, selling records, dealing with promoters, and general organization/time management. None of these activities are new to either of us, but the extra work is a step up, especially on a North American headlining tour. As you read this, we are probably missing Neil's presence on the tour in one way or another.
New and Strange Forms of Audience Participation
The absurd possibilities of the set appear in inverse relation to the size of the crowd and the energy in the venue, when the lack of a focused atmosphere necessitates creating one through alternate means. When the audience is large and attentive, it creates a focus that does not require any further help. San Francisco and Seattle were both shows that had that quality. I felt fine preserving the performer-audience separation and playing the set—people were into the music and didn't seem to require that the "ice" needed to be "broken."
It also sometimes makes sense to do something to upset certain expectations of what seeing Majical Cloudz live should consist of. I think people that have come to hear about us since the release of our record may expect a certain invariable seriousness bordering on "catharsis." This is certainly an acceptable attitude to have (just like any other) at our show, but I like there to be alternatives, and doing something that is not completely serious is a way to accomplish that. The difficulty is knowing where to draw the line—this tour so far has been an education in the acceptability of introducing less serious elements into our performances.
Happy Birthday: In Vancouver, the audience was good, but circumstance led me into a strange form of audience participation. Before the show, I found out it was my friend Trevor's birthday. After we played our first song, I called out his name to see if he was there. Someone shouted, "He's outside smoking a joint!" but then right afterwards, he came running inside. He came onstage and I got the audience to sing "Happy Birthday" for him. We hugged, he left the stage, and then we played another song.
After we played another song, I asked if anyone else had a birthday coming up. After a brief hesitation, a woman said she did, so I brought her up onstage and got the audience to sing "Happy Birthday" once again. This repeated a few more times during the show. I felt that this broke the ice between the crowd and Matt and I.
Pushup Contests: In Portland, the crowd didn't feel very energetic, and nor did I, so I asked if someone wanted to join me onstage to do pushups. A young woman who said she was a personal trainer came up, and we did 31 pushups. We played two more songs and then I asked if someone else wanted to come up to do pushups. This time, two women and one man came onstage, and we all lined up and did 32 pushups. In each case, I laid the microphone down on the stage and counted out loud into it as we went on.
Meet the Audience: The morning after the Santa Cruz show, I confronted myself with a number of questions: has the humor in our performances gone too far? Am I violating the acceptable practices of my "role" as a performer on tour in support of a record? Is it justified that the performer should be limited to uniformly embodying the emotional postures contained within the songs? Is it justified for the performer to introduce emotional postures that contradict those contained in the songs? Does the desire to subvert the expectations of a show environment threaten to obliterate our purpose for existence as Majical Cloudz?
An excerpt from my show journal about the Santa Cruz show:
When we began playing, I asked everyone to come up onstage one at a time and say their name and something interesting about themselves, because there were so few people that such an activity was possible. I felt this would help people be more comfortable in the very empty room. This gesture seemed to infuriate some people—one man exclaimed, "I bought your record?!" Most people happily came onstage, and I felt that I learned quite a bit about who was there.
Similarly, when I brought up the notion of pogoing to "Mister," a couple walked out of the venue, waving to me as they left through the back door. It's a rare sight to see people leaving during the set and that legitimately threw me off for a moment. I often flirt with the notion of "bombing" onstage during our performance by deliberately going against expectations and seeing what results from it. This is the first time on the tour where I felt we legitimately "bombed." We came out the other side with a handful of people who were very dedicated to the performance and who had a lot of positive things to say afterwards, the most oft-used word being "memorable." But I felt that we did indeed alienate a few people at the show. It was pushed into a darkness from which we could not fully recover it.
Something about the combination of circumstances at the Santa Cruz show resulted in something very dark and unrelated to a "show" environment. A guy named Joe who was at the show kept laughing hysterically during the performance, and I appreciated this—sometimes, laughter is a way of simply recognizing the absurd in a situation, and it seemed as if he was unable to stop a constantly flowing recognition of this in the atmosphere of the show.
I had been "scared straight," and for the next night's show in San Francisco, I recognized a necessary balance between allowing an entry point into a less serious appreciation of our band and a resolve to maintain and elaborate on the emotions contained within the songs themselves. I felt much, much better about the way that performance went, and thus I feel I have learned a valuable lesson during these shows on the West Coast.
All-Ages Shows Versus the Alcohol Industry
The experiences we have had on this tour with successful, exciting, rewarding all-ages shows has forced me to ask myself the utterly naïve question, "Why are 21+ shows booked?" The obvious answer has to do with selling alcohol. It is incredibly lucrative and is the infrequently acknowledged industry that serves as a basis for the live music industry. A telling symbol of this was found at the San Francisco show: the Rickshaw Stop makes a different drink recipe every night and names it after the headlining band. That night, there was a drink called "Majical Cloudz," on sale for six dollars.
It seems like there are middle roads to be traveled between 21+ shows where alcohol can be sold and all-ages shows where the only source of income for the venue is the money paid for entry to the show. At the Rickshaw Stop show, they were selling alcohol, but it was also all-ages—everyone had their ID checked and if you were underage, you received X's on each of your hands. This allowed the venue to make money from selling alcohol without it interfering with the relationship between a touring band and the people (of all ages) who are interested in seeing them perform.
I know very little about the politics and various legal situations regarding all-ages shows, I just write this to express that I'm becoming increasingly frustrated by 21+ events and I'm wondering what the alternatives are. I'm totally indifferent to the availability of alcohol at our shows; I don't think it's necessary to see us. After we played at the Rickshaw, the overwhelming majority of people I spoke to afterward who were really excited about seeing us play had X's on their hands. At 21+ shows, these people are not allowed in.