Fifty miles outside of Missoula, Montana, one of the back tires on Akimbo's tour van blows out on a two-lane bridge. The van fishtails across both lanes and almost crashes into the wall. The flapping tire tread pulls out the fuel line that goes into the tank, and the van immediately fills with the smell of gasoline. We get out to change the busted tire, but soon find the jack doesn't go high enough to get the van off the ground, so we're forced to search the sides of the highway for flat, discarded wood scraps and rocks we can rest the jack on. The air outside is thick with a putrid smell, and as we scavenge in the roadside ditch, we find it lined with the carcasses of dead deer.
After a while, Akimbo tour mates Cicadas catch up to us on the road and pull over to help. As they stop their van, all the coolant comes gushing out from under the engine onto the gravel. We can't find enough flat material to get Akimbo's van off the ground, so the others volunteer to drive further down the road to find us something we can use.
Two hours and a few cinder blocks later, we finally get Akimbo's rig back on the road, but Cicadas' van is a smoking mess. They wait for a tow truck for seven hours, miss their Missoula show, and have to cancel their show the next night.
As we stand on the side of the road in the heat and stench of dead deer, trying to place a jack on a wobbly pile of wood and rocks, I'm struck by the title of Akimbo's new album.
"So," I ask bassist and frontman Jon Weisnewski, "is this navigating the bronze?"
"Yeah, something like that."
Last weekend, the two bands came together for a three-day trek to Spokane, Missoula, and Wenatchee—a precursor to the release of Akimbo's fifth album, Navigating the Bronze. The title is a reference to the nine years Akimbo have spent on the road, playing countless shows and sleeping on strangers' floors. The way they see it—or at least the way their album cover and band merch portray it—they're modern Vikings, axes in hand, plowing through the waves in a big white van.
The Seattle natives have solidified themselves as major players in a new movement of heavy music emerging around the country. They belong to a set of bands like Saviours, the Sword, Lords, and Young Widows who are mixing classic rock, grunge, and metal into a new genre that can't be defined by any one of its parts.
"Just call it grunge," says Weisnewski.
"I liked the term 'hair-core,'" says guitarist Aaron Walters. "But then I found out people were already applying it to bands like Aiden, and I got bummed."
The band have been around long enough that they try not to play in town too often these days, opting instead to hop on bills with touring friends when they come through. They can guarantee a good turnout at Seattle shows, but on the road it's still anybody's guess what kind of crowd is going to show up.
The first night of the tour, in Spokane, they're greeted by 30 or so high school– and college-age kids who are stoked to see them. Akimbo have been through Spokane several times and have built up a good name for themselves there; the kids bang their heads and cheer enthusiastically. They also buy lots of merch: the key to any successful tour.
After shows, there are no hotels for Akimbo—just floors donated by any generous fans they can find.
"Even if we were making enough to stay in a hotel every night, we wouldn't," says drummer Nat Damm. "Save that money; meet new people."
If there's a party happening, Akimbo are ready to get in on the action, though on this minitour, the aftershow parties tend to be a case of beer and conversation with whoever's letting them crash at their place. Getting to know the type of people willing to let long-haired, tattooed strangers sleep in their home is half the fun of being on tour.
In Spokane, a sweet, spacey girl named Cory is kind enough to guide all seven of us—Akimbo, Cicadas, and me—down dirt roads to her secluded house on the Spokane River. As we lay out our sleeping bags on the floor, a couple of giant wolf spiders scurry across the carpet.
"Dude! Did you see the size of that?" yells Damm.
"It's not that big," Cory replies. "If you want to see some big spiders, look in the freezer." We didn't.
The next evening, after powering through exploding tires and the stench of death on Interstate 90, Akimbo receive the kind of reception at Wantage Records' Total Fest that every touring band dreams of. Total Fest is an annual gathering in Missoula with over 40 bands across three days. This year, it's set in a venue called the Badlander, with two bar stages side by side for zero lag time between sets, and an all-ages stage downstairs in a pool hall. Rock bands from across the country play back-to-back all night. Akimbo are given the glory of headlining the bar stage on Friday.
The crowd is screaming for them before they can even start playing, hyped up from an explosive set moments earlier by Fleshies. As Akimbo break into their first song, someone throws a bra onstage, a dance pit explodes, and everyone is pumping their fists into the air. A few songs into the set, Weisnewski, taken aback by the crowd's reaction, leans to the mic and says to the audience, "All of you should move to Seattle."
Shows like this are a vacation for the band—the sweet, rare reward for years of hard work. The next night in Wenatchee, however, is straight back to the office. They play to a giant saloon filled with tables of people eating steak. One kid has shown up specifically to see Akimbo; no one else seems to know who they are. Before they begin punishing the room with sound, Weisnewski greets the crowd: "Hi, we're Akimbo. Sorry for ruining your dinner."
Akimbo spare no energy, bestowing the same vociferous rock as the two previous nights. They are greeted overwhelmingly with blank stares and full mouths. They get their money and don't bother trying to sell any merch.
Akimbo spend roughly a quarter of their year on the road, so they've played countless nights like this—small, irritating squalls unavoidable on the open seas. It only gets worse when they're forced to deal with their embedded journalist barfing profusely out of the van for the majority of the ride back to Seattle, getting puke all over their sleeping bags, pillows, and jackets. Good thing we're only a couple of hours from home.