by Brian Cook
on Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 1:11 PM
When the band I play in, Russian Circles, announced our European tour with Deafheaven for Spring 2012, Grant Brissey asked me to write a tour diary chronicling our trip. I was a little hesitant at first. For one thing, I’ve typically tried to keep my band business separate from my music writing. Additionally, my bandmates aren’t the kind of people that want all their day-to-day business made public. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most tour documentaries and diaries focus on either the luxuries of wildly successful artists or the trials and tribulations of struggling acts. There aren’t a lot of stories of financially sustainable working bands out there. Presumably, that’s because our stories aren’t particularly interesting. We’ve figured out how to tour in a manner where things are relatively stress-free and efficient. We aren’t partiers. There’s no cocaine or groupies in the green room. We sleep in hotels and travel in vans. I can’t promise this will be particularly insightful or even remotely honest. But this is how we roll.
Seattle to Chicago to London to Prague
My flight itinerary is SeaTac to Chicago to London to Prague. I leave Seattle at noon on April 2nd. We’re scheduled to get into Prague early afternoon the next day. The rest of the band lives in Chicago, and I meet up with them at my layover at O’Hare. The last time I flew out of O’Hare, three separate strangers asked if I was a DJ. Not wanting to get caught up in those conversations again, I choose a seat at the gate next to a guy that looks like Wayne Coyne, figuring he’s less likely to ask me dumb questions.
Mike (guitar), Dave (drums), and Che (sound engineer) show up twenty minutes later. Winds up it was a mad dash scramble for them to get to the airport, with the inevitable last minute pre-tour errands taking longer than anticipated and the realization that they’d left my bass guitar behind just as they were getting on the freeway for the airport. The tour talk catches the ear of the Coyne-look-alike, who winds up actually being the real Wayne Coyne. Oops. He is pretty friendly and chats for a bit before there’s an announcement that the flight has been delayed. This means we will miss our connection. Our London to Prague leg is rebooked for a flight five hours later, which is kind of a drag, but it means we’re less likely to lose luggage due to a short layover.
Fortunately the flight to London isn’t too packed. After a couple glasses of wine, half a Xanax, and knocking out a chunk of Jean Genet’s “Our Lady Of The Flowers,” I pass out for around four or five hours. That’s more sleep than I typically get on international flights, which is a good start to the tour. Jetlag on these European tours is always brutal. This is my tenth tour in Europe, and I’ve come to accept that there is no ideal way of beating the time difference. I know I’ll be exhausted mid afternoon and wide awake at 3am for the next week. But getting a little sleep on an overnight flight and forcing myself to stay awake the whole next day will help with the adjustment. All things considered, I arrive at our final destination feeling pretty good, which is a rare feat in my experience. The girl at the immigration booth in Prague scans my passport without saying one word to me. In fact, she never even looks up from her cellphone. There’s no one at the customs gate so we just walk through. It won’t be nearly this easy getting back into the U.S.
Our driver Tomas Mladek pick us up from the airport and deliver us to the hotel where we meet up with the guys in Deafheaven. We check into our rooms and head out to a nearby bar. At this point, it’s almost 9:30 at night the day after I left Seattle. My body doesn’t know what time it is though, and my plan is to get drunk. My experience is that no sleeping pill works as well at conquering jetlag as a couple of shots and a few beers. The bar is a smoky dive in the basement of a theater. Some drunk dude is enamored with our sound guy Che, presumably because there aren’t a lot of black guys with dreadlocks in Czech Republic. He tries to impress Che by singing a medley of Bob Marley songs. We exit the conversation as politely as possible.
Pilsners and shots of a Czech plum-based moonshine are consumed. I leave the bar a little before midnight and score exactly eight hours of sleep. Success.
Day off in Prague.
Actually, it’s not much of a day off. We planned to get into Europe a couple of days early so that we could adjust to the time-zone change, dial in our rental gear, and practice our set a few times. We go by Nomads of Prague, the company we always rent our backline from. One of the co-owners, Tschepitz, played in a band called Lvmen that toured with my old band on our first European tour. He left the band a while ago to focus on Nomads, but he mentions that he started playing with Lvmen again a few months ago because their previous bass player was beheaded in an elevator accident.
We get our gear and head to a studio we’re renting for the afternoon to rehearse. The load-in and set-up process is long and difficult. Mike drops a speaker cabinet on this thumb and his thumbnail immediately turns black and blue. Dave shipped his back-up drum kit to Europe and apparently it arrived in Prague pretty badly beat up. Fortunately, it’s a stainless steel Ludwig kit, so it stood up to the abuse pretty well, but a bunch of the hardware is pretty fucked. One of my amps won’t turn on. Mike’s amp makes a pretty bad buzzing sound, which winds up being from a missing pre-amp tube. Then we blow all the power in the studio. It takes a good three hours and a run back to Nomads to get everything up and running. By the time we run through the first song, we’re all exhausted and Mike’s thumb is throbbing with pain. We learned on the last tour that it’s definitely preferable to arrive in Europe a few days early and to rehearse on the new gear before heading out on touring, as opposed to just showing up and immediately heading out on tour. Today reinforces our decision. If we’d left for tour this tired and unprepared, we would be seriously bummed. It takes a good five or six hours before we’re happy with how everything sounds, which is roughly equivalent to playing five or six shows before feeling confident on stage. By the time we get back to the hotel, it’s 11pm. There’s no need for alcohol tonight; I pass out immediately.
Prague, Czech Republic
Mike wasn’t so lucky with sleep last night. His thumb hurt so bad he couldn’t sleep. He eventually wandered out to the bar and ran into the Deafheaven dudes, who’d been there drinking all night. He made his way back to the hotel after the bar closed, but the pain in his thumb still kept him awake. So he set off on foot to find a hospital in the early hours of the morning. Unfortunately, no one at the hospital spoke English and he couldn't arrange to see a doctor. He then got lost on the walk back to the hotel, and once again the language barrier hampered his mission. He eventually found his way back in the morning.
We spend the morning running more errands while Mike makes a trip to a hospital with Tomas. He eventually shows up at the club with a giant splint on his finger. Apparently, he has a fissure fracture on the tip of his thumb. The doctor didn’t speak much English, but he was able to communicate to Mike that he shouldn’t play guitar. There’s an awkward moment where we have to consider canceling the entire tour, but Mike decides to see if he can play guitar without putting any stress on the thumb. It’s rough, and we have to cut a few songs from the set, but we’re fortunate that it’s the thumb on his fretting hand as opposed to his picking hand, so he’s able to get by.
It’s a nerve-racking day. We make an announcement at the beginning of our set that the show might be a bit of a struggle given Mike’s condition. But we manage to get through the songs. There are definite fuck-ups here or there, but that’s inevitable for a first show of tour. The audience is awesome; they applaud and cheer during the fuck-ups, knowing what we’re up against. It feels triumphant, all things considered.
This city has always treated us well. On the drive we cut down Mike’s finger-sized splint so that it fits his thumb a little better. The club is located in an abandoned slaughterhouse. After it was an abattoir, it was a squat. Now it’s a legitimate multi-building complex with four different stages, a few different bars, and an apartment building for touring musicians. We’ve been bumped up to the third largest room, which is both encouraging and a little anxiety-inducing given that we’re still dealing with the handicap of Mike’s thumb. The show still winds up going well.
I wake up with a sore throat, a cough, and a bangover. I’m generally pretty lucky with not getting sick on tour. But the bangover—that stiff soreness down the neck and spine from headbanging—is pretty impossible to avoid after those first few shows. I feel like shit. But we get loaded into the club and things sound pretty good on stage during soundcheck. I take some European ibuprofen with codeine in it but it doesn’t do much to assuage my back pain.
The show sells out. We’re still playing an abridged set because of Mike’s thumb, but it works out well because there’s an early curfew to make way for the dubstep party in the venue after the show. We load out immediately after our set. The air outside smells of smoke, to which Kerry from Deafheaven remarks “smells like there’s another bonfire at the library tonight.”
I haven’t had much to drink tonight, but due to the empty stomach, I’m feeling pretty buzzed. So I’m easily convinced by the Deafheaven guys to check out the dubstep night. It’s sparsely attended, but the lightshow and soundsystem are out of control. We wind up dancing, first jokingly, then, as is often the case at these European dance nights, very seriously. George from Deafheaven does the lizard crawl across the stage at some point. I wind up riding on his back. Not my proudest moment.
I retire to the band apartment upstairs when I realize that it’s only Korey from Deafheaven and I still dancing, and that we’re no longer amusing each other but now just genuinely dancing. Kerry and George are with some random German dude who’s pouring the liquid contents of a prescription bottle into mixed drinks. Apparently it’s codeine or something comparable. They offer me some, and given my sore back, it sounds like a good idea for a second. But I wind up passing on the offer and head to sleep.
I feel genuinely shitty this morning. The cold now includes that general full-body achiness of the flu. Still, I’m faring better than George, who’s white as a sheet and spent the morning throwing up from whatever is was that that German dude poured into the mixed drinks. He apparently had a few glasses of the stuff. Glad I passed on that one.
Never played Dresden before, though we’ve always had good shows in the neighboring city of Leipzig. Loading in and setting up is painful. I feel alternately cold and feverish. But the turnout for the show is great, and by the time we take the stage I feel way better.
We get our first dose of German honesty tonight. German fans have this habit of complimenting and insulting you at the same time. “Show was very good. But why so many new songs? I like old album better.” Thanks, man. I remember reading a Melvins interview where they mention the same thing. Still, it’s better than the guy that told Deafheaven he liked their band but they sounded like shit that night. And as they tell you this stuff, they’re always asking for an autograph.
We blow the power three or four times during soundcheck. The main problem seems to be turning on too many devices in too short of a time. This does not bode well for the set. The sound engineer for the club apologizes and acknowledges that it’s been a problem the club has tried to correct for some time. We also have a problem with our lights blowing both the house fuses and burning out the bulbs. We decide we have to scrap them for the night and rely on the club’s lighting setup. The lighting guy seems like a bit of a dick, and despite reiterating that we want the lights as dark as possible and as much stage fog as possible, we get the exact opposite. But at least the power doesn’t blow.
We have to get up at 6:30am to drive to Warsaw tomorrow. We get to our hostel around 1am, and my cough keeps me awake until 6am.
There isn’t much of a highway system in Poland, so even though the distance from Berlin to Warsaw isn’t too bad, the drive takes forever. For a significant stretch of the drive, the road winds through a forest where prostitutes wait on the side of the road for lonely travelers. I try to catch up a bit on sleep on the loft of our Sprinter van. I have really intense dreams during the drive, which I’m not sure are the result of being sick or being extremely exhausted. At one point I get sleep paralysis, and I lay half-awake on the loft unable to move.
Not sure if the club is a squat, but there's lots of concrete and lots of dirt. Mike is still struggling with his thumb, and during soundcheck he mentions that some issues with a past repetitive stress injury are resurfacing due to the way he has to contort his hand to avoid using his thumb. He seems a little stressed out and mentions the possibility of having to cancel shows if the problem worsens. He switches to a different guitar in hopes that having a less neck-heavy instrument will alleviate some of the issues. Dave and I had assumed that the situation with his thumb was improving, so this new information is disconcerting.
This is our first time in Warsaw, and it’s a packed house. But we have another long drive tomorrow with bad roads tomorrow. Dave and I share a room and nervously talk about Mike’s condition. There’s the obvious concern for Mike’s well-being and the acknowledgment that it might be better to cancel shows now and let him heal as opposed to having him continue playing and risk long-term damage. On the flipside, it would suck to lose thousands of dollars by canceling a tour over a hurt thumb.