Embarrassing Interactions with Well-Known Men in the Music Industry
Or, How It Feels to Act Stupid in Front of Someone Famous
The end of a night in Los Angeles saw us in a particularly spectacular state of chemical consumption. Well, when I say "we," I really mean me and the other guys in the Shins who usually had to stay in the "loud room" while the other, more even-keeled bandmates showered and read in the "quiet room." It was still early in the mid-2000s Shins explosion, and we (I) didn't always use the best judgment. Everything was suddenly way wackier, way more fun, and way easier to get into. On this particular night, I was feeling reckless and on top of the world, for a few hours at least.
Fast-forward to 6 a.m.—time to drag our ridiculous asses to bed. My comrades efficiently fell facedown in the two empty beds and immediately started snoring. Meanwhile, I was wide-awake, willing my heart to slow down enough to please, please, please just sleep.
Nothing worked. I stumbled from one bed with a guy in it to the other bed with a guy in it. I turned the TV on and off, got in my skivvies, paced (amazingly waking no one), and finally just sat staring at the clock, mind racing. All I had to do was wait for 8 a.m., and it would be completely normal for me to leave and get pancakes somewhere. I was fully dressed at 7:59.
At the stroke of 8, I opened the door, and standing there ready to knock was Phil Ek, our sound guy, who'd slept with the normals in the quiet room. He said, "Oh, good! You remembered we're going to Rick Rubin's house this morning!" and I instantly flashed back to the first time I'd done acid. I'd saved a hit of blotter for a month, waiting for the perfect moment, came home early from school, dosed, and then the phone rang. It was my mom on the other end, pleased that I'd remembered to come home early for my checkup at our family doctor.
"Are the other guys coming?" asked Phil, craning his neck to survey the killing floor of our room.
"Nope, they're sleeping in," I shot back and quickly shut the door.
Seated next to Phil in the back of our old tour van, I was in a seriously shaky state that was only compounded by the nervous excitement in the air. Everyone else in the van had had an entire night to mentally prepare to meet Rubin in his mansion. They'd slept like humans and had breakfast. I was acting cool. No chance I looked like I was about to have a nervous breakdown. Just staring out the window, no big deal.
Phil was on to me: "Dude, are you okay? You're sweating bullets."
I looked at him and almost cried/laughed/puked, relieved that I had at least one buddy who knew my secret. He couldn't stop cracking up.
The directions to Rubin's place in the Hollywood Hills led our bulky Ford Econoline, filled with sandwich wrappers and dirty socks, up a dangerously steep and curvy one-lane gravel road. Tightly manicured hedges brushed against the oversize van. The further we climbed, the harder it was to imagine what would happen if someone was coming the other way. We finally came to an elaborate wrought-iron gate that looked like it belonged in The Great Gatsby. A voice came through the intercom, and the gate swung open.
After positioning the van between a Bentley and a perfectly restored vintage Triumph, we exited. There was a distinct Disneyland feel to the surroundings—the eerie feeling that everything from cracks in the walls to the air itself had been meticulously engineered. I wanted to run away screaming.
We entered the house just in time to pass Trent Reznor walking away briskly in a black hoodie. Rubin's assistant (who resembled a horny Anton LaVey) guided us through the taxidermy horror show that was the main hall (dead exotic animals completely surrounding us) to the sitting room where we sat in uncomfortable chairs waiting for Rubin. I made sure Phil and I were sitting right next to each other. He was my spirit animal. My giggling, unable-to-stop-fucking-with-me spirit animal.
Rubin entered, and we rose to greet him like he was the pope. He was draped in a white yogi toga robe wrap sort of thing. Huge head, huge beard, huge face... and absolutely the quietest talker ever. He sat like a Buddha and conversed with James Mercer on a number of topics, at one point asking James to scat (James politely turned him down). He told us he needed us to hear his current project and had his assistant turn the stereo on full blast, playing what Phil explained to me was the band Semisonic. We sat in silence watching Rubin rock back and forth, fingering his prayer beads and grinning at us while the ENTIRE ALBUM played from front to back at a deafening level. At some point, I realized I'd made Phil hold my hand. It was all too much.
In reality, Rubin was a very nice guy and extremely nice to have had us over. I gradually became a bit more humanlike and realized that the pounding scream I'd been hearing in my head since we'd entered the house was actually a band (Slipknot, natch) recording downstairs. We were shown a Rolls-Royce that had belonged to John Lennon, the pool where some starlet had drowned in the 1920s, and Mr. Rubin even promised to send me Reign in Blood without vocals ("It's like a symphony, Dave"). We got back in the van, started her up with an embarrassing roar, and inched our way back down to reality, where I finally got my pancakes.
Ian "kind of a dick" MacKaye
Ian MacKaye would be disgusted to have the term "celebrity" anywhere near his name. He completely opposes the concept of pop-culture idolatry and has spent his entire public life extending a hope that his fans place themselves on an equal and interactive level as whatever band he is in. But fuck it, he's a celebrity in my book. Most of the bands he has fronted have spearheaded entire genres of underground rock music and inspired an uncountable amount of copycats. A cofounder of Dischord Records, he is a giant who has put out a lot of records that I still love. And one day in the early 1990s, I caught him in a very bad mood.
I was a 20-year-old living in Albuquerque and more or less active in "the scene." I'd been playing in punk bands for, like, four years at that point and had recently inherited my own weekly radio show at the left of the dial college station. It was a punk show called Raw Guts. We did okay, but our programming guy always pressured us to do interviews to jazz up the show. He didn't like the idea of having three hours every Wednesday night solely composed of prank calls, fart jokes, and scratched-up Flipper and Necros LPs that would skip so bad, we were forced to supply our own needles. We needed to class it up a bit. I mean, this station played A Prairie Home Companion every Sunday, right?
Fugazi announced they were touring through town in support of their second real full-length album, Steady Diet of Nothing. We played them, as well as tons of other Dischord records, all the time, so I called and called, lied and finagled, and somehow managed to acquire "press passes" and "backstage passes" (I put these in quotation marks because I'm talking about a band that refused to even make T-shirts—which actually served to make them only more intimidating). I also convinced the station to loan us their fancy DAT field recorder for an actual interview with Ian MacKaye. I'm nervous typing this out now, and it's been 21 years. I was completely nauseated with anxiety for three weeks leading up to the show.
All the usual unfortunate manifestations of Murphy's Law that take place right before a highly anticipated and potentially life-altering public event happened that day. A cold sore, sudden intestinal distress, and a time constraint that forced me to wear a shirt more suited for a Jimmy Buffett cruise instead of my Void T-shirt meant to impress Fugazi that I'd been planning to wear for a week. Things were looking just swell.
As I exited my rusted VW into the hot and dusty parking lot behind the Sunshine Theater, a whoosh of wind blew my hair into a big, black, static-activated helmet of awkwardness that screamed "Don't let anyone see you with me!" My cohost Lisa had showed up early without telling me and ran over to help and give me some words of encouragement: "Here, let me help you with the Tascam—what the hell is wrong with you? You look fucking ridiculous."
I asked if I could run to the restroom and throw some water on my hair/burn my shirt, but I looked behind her and there he was, advancing on us by himself.
"Sorry—we've been here hanging out for a half hour waiting for you. They're super nice."
He already looked mad.
I have to give MacKaye a pass, though. I've toured a lot, been in lots of bands, put out lots of records, the whole shebang. The one thing I know I'm not good at is interviews. It's next to impossible for me to hide my feelings. Sometimes it feels really angering to be asked the same question a hundred times in a row by a hundred different people every day. I also know how important it is to respect the people who are kind enough to support your band. Which is why I learned long ago that the best way for me to respect fans is to play my heart out and do the least amount of interviews possible.
MacKaye seemed exhausted. He was bummed out by the "thuggishness" of our town and brutally honest. I fumbled around with the tape machine for a few minutes while he wordlessly stared holes into my face. I nervously asked what his thoughts were on the "state of the scene," and he quickly shot back, "What state? California?" and continued to stare at me.
I mentioned something about his co- guitarist/singer Guy Picciotto's old band Rites of Spring but made the mistake of pronouncing his name "Guy," as in "hey, guy."
He cut me off mid-sentence with "It's pronounced GHEE!"
Jeez. In retrospect, he was kind of a dick.
I finally got him to wax poetic about touring; he took the mic and went on for 15 minutes about how houses all look the same from the freeway as you drive past. I had no idea where he was going with any of this but just kept nodding. I used the opportunity to gracefully mop the sweat that had gathered underneath my ironic thrift store Tommy Bahama knockoff. I'm sure he said some fascinating stuff.
When I turned off the machine, he seemed to finally loosen up, and we just talked a bit. Then Picciotto (the guy I was actually too starstruck to interview) called him over to look at Lisa's "punk" scars she'd given herself when she was younger. We joined everybody by the side of the club, hidden from the gathering line on the sidewalk. The four of them just seemed like normal people that day, no time or energy to fictionalize a public face or polite mood. I guess they'd just been stuck in a hot van with a bunch of other dudes driving forever through the desert and were spaced out. I guess I can also say that Ian MacKaye didn't like getting interviewed by a Parrothead with giant hair.
The show was incredible. They opened with "Brendan #1" from Repeater, and it blew my mind.
David "restrained wacky boomer" Lovering
When the Shins were touring the UK in 2004, we were invited "out on the town" with another band that commanded a serious paparazzi presence—serious flashbulbs blinding you as you exited the pub stuff, that whole cliché. Because of this, what started off as a moderately interesting evening soon dissolved into a totally irritating clusterfuck involving members of our group being lost, people being shoved, and strangers shouting at us.
We moved the activities to a nearby hotel suite where some mutual friends were having a party. My mood had soured into what some friends call "Negadave." Nothing is worse than hearing someone in a successful band complain. Hearing them complain about anything at all, ever. I absolutely hate hearing it. But here goes. I was at the end of my rope. It was mega late, and I was far from sober. It'd been days since I'd had a decent sleep, everything and everyone irritated me, and my emotions had turned me into an insufferable prick. By the time we arrived, I was in full "leave me alone forever" mode.
As we entered the loud and ridiculous party, I lost everyone I had shown up with. While navigating my way from the bar in search of an area free from anyone in any band at all (please, god), I heard someone talking to me. I looked down and—oh, boy!—it was a jaunty party magician wearing "restrained wacky boomer" duds and shades! Sitting cross-legged on the floor and flanked by girls, he held out a deck of cards and repeated, "I said, pick a card, any card." This was the straw that broke the asshole camel's back. I snatched a card (any card) and held it facing away from him with the meanest look I could muster.
He guessed "seven of clubs."
He was absolutely correct.
I deadpanned, "Guess again, chief." He gave me a gentle and sincere gaze. He seemed genuinely puzzled. "I'm seeing clubs. Nine of clubs?"
"Don't quit your day job, dude," I spit out like a horrible monster and pocketed the card. As I strutted my smug ass away, I could hear him lament to one of the girls, "I... I just don't understand. That never fails."
The next day in the van, Marty Crandall told me how wonderful it was to have met David Lovering from the Pixies the night before.
"Jesus—where the hell was he?" I asked. "I was surrounded by assholes all night!"
"Oh, you couldn't have missed him. He was doing card tricks."
It should be noted that since I'm not an idiot, I've worshipped the Pixies since I was a teenager. This is a horrifying story for me.
Dave Hernandez is the founding bassist and guitarist in the Shins and now plays in Little Cuts and the Intelligence.