In 2015, I spent 161 days on the road. I spent a couple weeks touring in support of my first solo album and a couple weeks selling merch for Shannon and the Clams, but the bulk of my time away from home was with my band La Luz, who recorded and released our second album, Weirdo Shrine, this year. Whenever I return home, everyone has the same question for me: "How was tour?" To which I dumbly reply "Great," condensing half of my life into a single word. It would also be true if I said "boring" or "disgusting" or "lonely" or "dreamy." My time on the road would be better described with a few random glimpses of the places we went.
We crashed at our friend Ben's mom's place and didn't have far to drive that day, so we got to indulge in one of those rare perfect tour mornings when you're in a comfy spot and time isn't much of an issue. Pancakes! Laundry! Showers for everyone! The beach was a few lazy blocks away, and the water was warm. As a kid, when people talked about heaven, I always imagined myself rolling and bouncing on big pillowy clouds, and that's what it felt like to swim that day. I was laughing, and my friends were there and they were all laughing, the sun smiling down on the tops of our heads. We were free and loose in the universe.
Our day in Atlanta started with a shitty radio interview with a host who didn't seem to know who we were. "So you guys are all female?" was actually a full question that expected an answer, and the follow-up "Are you trying to say something?" only made things worse. Marian [Li Pino, drummer] put her head on the desk and started to take a nap, live on-air. I attempted to create a new band narrative by listing every 1990s horror-metal group I could think of as a creative influence. We were told that Big Boi from Outkast was a La Luz fan, so we put him on the guest list but (surprise!) he didn't show. Usually we love playing Atlanta, but this crowd was kinda stiff and we were trying our damndest to loosen them up. During one song, Lena [Simon, bassist] and I lunged backward on top of the crowd and she almost got dropped on her head.
We played a fun show at an outdoor tiki bar and slept at my cousin Molly's house. I got my own room in the basement in a kind of storage room/guest bedroom. There were no windows, just a tiny door on the wall next to the bed. I was feeling kinda creeped out but also tired, so I turned off the light to go to sleep. Suddenly, moments after I drifted off, a dark-figure woman burst out from the wall and screamed "I'M GOING WITH YOU!" I lay paralyzed as an icy wave rushed from my head to my feet and back up to burn in my chest. I felt like I had been entered and possessed, and it took a long while to convince my arm to reach up and find the light switch. Without thinking, I gathered my blankets and my pillow and walked upstairs to the room where Alice [Sandahl, keyboard] was sleeping and crawled into bed with her like a little kid.
Graffiti in German cities looks like it's straight out of the background of a old-school video game. If you've never been outside the United States (like me prior to La Luz), you might think taking a crap would be a universal experience, but it is truly amazing how many ways people have come up with to flush a toilet! The gentle indignity of groping around a tiny stall for a lever, chain, pedal, string, button, or motion-sensing electronic eye is often accompanied by an accented voice in my head that taunts: "Look at you! You fool! You don't belong here!"
Geronimo's is an American Southwest–themed bar. Animal hides, cow skulls, antlers, snake skins, and giant folk-art wicker thrones are placed beside black-and-white photos of Native Americans. The owner surveys the premises in a vintage suede jacket with four-inch fringe. We drank tequila and ate Swedish burritos (not bad) while the sound guy talked our ear off about American politics. He thought most of our problems would be solved if more power was given over to armed militias. It was strange to be so far from home and hanging out in this sort of home-themed setting. I felt like I was in the twilight zone. Scandinavian audiences are generally terrifyingly polite, and my few attempts to make mood-lightening jokes were met with silence and blank stares, though afterward people were really friendly. The hotel the venue booked for us looked swank from the outside so we all got excited, but inside it was like a really dirty M.C. Escher maze in which half-dressed men peered out from behind cracked doors.
On the autobahn, cars go so fast that if you gaze across the lanes of opposing traffic to a cornfield or a thin forest of birch trees, you can't really see cars at all, just shadows, the slight glint of metal. I noticed that trick one day in the backseat and I became obsessed with making cars disappear, but told no one because it's terrifying.
I saw a cow chasing a cyclist down a bike path.
We followed the GPS to our accommodations for the night, which turned out to be three RVs on the outskirts of town. The local prostitutes dress like 1990s business ladies with a twist and hang out on small country roads looking like they are just confused about where a good place to catch a cab might be. We stopped for some pizza, and I heard someone say "Mama mia" immediately! We had some time after dinner and before we played, so we took a walk in the city center, which was full of amazing 12th-century buildings and hordes of chain-smoking teenagers. A few blocks in, the buildings parted to reveal an enthusiastic bell-bottomed song-and-dance performance of American disco classics and a laser light show.
Go Go Night Dream
Black Shadow Lap Dance Club
Castles are real and everywhere. We stayed at a dreamy hippie enclave with a woman who looked like a forgotten member of the Incredible String Band. Will, our tour manager and my boyfriend, asked about a good place to take a stroll, and she recommended walking toward the ancient pagan stone circles.
"They're right over there, just hop over any fences," she said.
"Really, that's okay?" we asked.
"Yeah, this is Scotland, you have the right to roam. It's not like America where someone could come at you with a gun."
The last show of our tour was at Paradiso, a beautiful old theater with a large venue downstairs and a smaller room upstairs where we played. Yo La Tengo was playing downstairs, and I noticed that Patti Smith was scheduled to play a show in honor of the 40th anniversary of Horses the next night. We had met Patti's guitarist, Lenny Kaye, a year ago in Oslo, where we were shocked to find him DJing our show, so I sent him an e-mail inviting him to catch our set. I didn't figure he'd get the message in time, but worth a try. The audience was happy and fun, the sound was fantastic, and I could see the monitor guy smiling and dancing in the corner of my eye the whole time. Afterward, the greenroom was full of friends, new and old. My best friend from elementary school showed up, the Dutch guy we rented our gear from, Sub Pop's resident Brit, and some of Yo La Tengo's crew came by. We had just popped open an end-of-tour celebratory bottle of champagne when Lenny Kaye walked in. After more than three months on the road, it was a real treat to experience the super happy Wayne's World ending where Mr. Big sees the video they beamed into his limo and shows up at the last minute! We talked about life on the road: the stress, the long boring drives, going months without seeing friends and family, and sleeping in strange places. Then Lenny said something I found strangely comforting: "But if you do it long enough, they'll write 'Musician' on your grave."
Will plays keyboard with Shannon and the Clams, so after the La Luz dates were over, we stayed on and met up with them in London for a short run of dates. I've been touring pretty steadily for the last five years, but I've never traveled with a band I wasn't in, so I was interested to get a glimpse of touring life from the other side of the stage. Also, while I should have been exhausted after three solid months on the road, watching Shannon and the Clams play makes me feel like a hair-fisted 14-year-old at a Beatles show. On the road, La Luz eats fast and cheap: gas-station stuff, leftover greenroom snacks, and "scamwiches" (sandwiches made from the continental breakfast and snuck out of the dining room in a coat pocket or tote bag). The Clams, on the other hand, will full-on sit down at an Indian restaurant and get appetizers and entrées and end the meal with a cappuccino!
Shannon and I had just hit the dance floor after the Clams' set in Lille, France, when a girl who recognized me from the merch table ran up and pleaded with us in breathless, careful English: "Do not go to Paris tomorrow! Do not go! You cannot go! There is an attack!" Because the attacks were in progress, the news was hard to piece together at first. But later, locked to our phones, the magnitude of the night's horror became clear. I felt a nauseating mix of depression, rage, and hopelessness, familiar from mass shootings that had come before. The Clams felt bad about canceling, but in the end, it wasn't their call. The promoter for their Paris show had been killed at the Bataclan, and the venue, in the same neighborhood, would be closed.
Our last week we were in both France and Belgium as those nations struggled to piece together what happened and what might come next. I was planning my escape route wherever we went. In Lyon, they played a show on a small ship, and I screwed open a little porthole in the closet behind the merch table in case I had to dive into the Rhône. Yet there were big grateful crowds at both shows. "We need this right now. We need to be together," a woman told me with tears welling up. In Brussels, there were men with machine guns everywhere and army trucks like frozen dinosaurs dropped into the middle of market streets.
A few days later, after an intensive round of security checks, I boarded my flight in Amsterdam and finally headed home.
La Luz is playing Neumos on New Year's Eve.