Broken Vans, Sweaty Hands, Future Plans

Things started hot and they ended hot. Ariel and I left Berlin in early June sweating in a blue ’98 VW van, heading for a week of duo shows in Europe on our way to the UK, where we planned to pick up the rest of the band. We tried out material from our upcoming duo EP on the audiences we met, and things seemed to go pretty well, giving us hope that one day we could get whole rooms of people singing the refrain “fuck the government, I love you” along with us.

Somewhere on the way to Calais, the van’s exhaust system started sounding a lot like a convertible in the 50s dragging a bunch of old cans behind it after a wedding. I gave Ariel that meaningful look that means “I never told you this, but I barely know how to change a tire,” and we started scrambling all over the information superhighway to find a mechanic who could examine the van for us. Thanks to Andy, our promoter in Southampton, we ended up at Yew Tree Workshops in the middle of the New Forest the next morning, where Mark the mechanic told us that our entire exhaust system would need to be replaced, and it would take around a week to get the part. We bravely set off to visit every single rental car agency in the Southampton area, where it turned out that thousands of cruise ship visitors had rented all the vehicles, everywhere, only that morning. Finally we tracked down a minivan out at the airport, and when we arrived the nice man behind the counter told us it could be ours for the week for the stunning bargain of only 900 pounds! Silently making plans to sell one of my kidneys somewhere along the way, I signed on the dotted line. We drove back to the garage to transfer our gear from the old broken van to the new expensive van, and lo and behold, there was Ol’ Blue coming down off the lift. A smiling St. Mark (I have canonized him, though I’m not sure the Vatican has received my memo) told us that minutes after we had left, the parts truck had arrived and had just happened to have a VW T4 exhaust system that someone else had ordered and not claimed. Bob’s your uncle, as they say, and we had a van that no longer sounded like a Mad Max reject. Back out to return the un-needed rental van, then back again by taxi to the garage, and we were on our way.

That night we played our last duo gig of the tour in London, where we met Chris for the first time. Chris is a nice young comic from Brighton who had, in what I can only guess was a bout of some foul tropical fever, bought tickets to every one of our UK gigs. I warned him that it was going to be very boring, but he didn’t listen to me; since we’ve never had anyone follow us on tour before, Chris now bears the official title of First Hellhead, an ambiguous honour if there ever was one. Luckily for all of us, Chris turned out to not be a serial killer but actually a really wonderful and hilarious guy, and luckily for Chris, we turned out not to be jerks. This is us with Chris and the van during breakdown number two, later on in Wakefield:

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Also in London, we found Jake and Darren, and then drove through the night to meet Nick in Manchester. I don’t remember why now, but it had seemed like an intelligent idea at the time that we would all fly in to different places, and the whole thing was a bit like those scenes in heist movies where they “assemble the team.” Ariel: the cunning ex-CIA agent. Nick: the gambler. Darren: the bashful but wealthy con-man. Jake: demolitions expert. Mathias: comic bungler. That kind of thing.

Two great shows in the Manchester-Salford area followed, along with our second Marc Riley session on BBC 6 Music, and then we were off to Yorkshire where we discovered the incredible time-capsule of the Arden Road Social Club in Halifax and the surprisingly wild Long Division Festival in Wakefield. I can’t say enough good things about the Long Division organizers, and we got to see some great bands—including personal heroes the Lovely Eggs and new fave Sweet Baboo. Unfortunately I also can’t say enough about how absolutely drunk most of the audience was by the time we took the stage, and I fear some of our gentle ballads may have gone unappreciated on the punters yelling at us from the bar.

The next day we set out in a gentle Yorkshire rain for the long drive to Edinburgh, but after only half an hour the engine died completely and we were stranded at the side of the motorway in a busy construction zone. I called the rescue hotline and said “hey, we’re pulled over just south of the Scotch Corner service station,” to which the operator replied in a slow, creepy voice: “I know, we’ve been watching you on the cameras for the last twenty minutes.”

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Fortunately the creepy dude sent a tow truck eventually, which delivered us and our broken van to the service station. Just as I was stepping out of the truck wondering how the heck we were going to get the van fixed in the rain on a Sunday in rural Yorkshire, out of nowhere appeared a smiling man wearing mechanic’s overalls. His name was Stevie, we quickly learned, and after a few minutes rummaging around under the bonnet, he told us our cam sensor was dead. He could fix it, but (of course) couldn’t get the part on a Sunday. We instantly came up with seventeen wildly impractical schemes to get to Edinburgh by any means necessary (taxi! train! hot air balloon!), at which point Stevie earned his own mechanic’s sainthood instantly: here’s what we’ll do, he said, I’ll go get my wife’s Fiat Panda, I’ll be back in an hour, then we’ll put your gear in my truck and my wife Sarah and I will drive it to Edinburgh in time for your gig, while you follow along in her car. Stevie’s accent was a bit thick for us, but eventually we realized that we really had heard him correctly, and before long we were zipping north following Steve’s taillights all the way to Scotland. We got to the gig just in time for doors, basically jumped on stage and played one of the most fun sets of the tour (made extra zany by the fact that Ariel had left her clarinet back at the service station and just danced and sang the whole time). Stevie and Sarah watched the show from the sidelines, and when it was over they promptly grabbed our gear and headed back south to Yorkshire, telling us to keep the Panda til they next morning, when they would have our van all fixed up for us. Here are Stevie and Sarah outside the Electric Circus in Edinburgh, making plans after receiving a parting gift of Scottish shortbread from a very kind audience member who felt that such a brief trip north deserved some kind of memento:

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On the wings of angels (aka Sarah’s Panda), we made it to Teeside the next day to find Stevie and Sarah waiting with our newly-fixed van. Bewildered with gratitude, we paid Stevie for his work and practically floated to our gig in Middlesbrough that night.

The next few days held an assortment of good times and new experiences, including meeting some really excellent people in Coventry and Derby, getting the always-excellent Quiet Marauder experience in Cardiff, followed by an early morning tea at Spillers Records (oldest record shop in the world), and then a totally sweaty, intense and incredible gig in London at the Sebright Arms. Arriving in Ramsgate the next day, we settled in for nearly a week of relaxed recording sessions at the incomparable Big Jelly Studios, where Al Harle and Mike Collins made us feel at home, and more importantly, made us sound good. Staying up late and jamming at Big Jelly at night, we’d record the results the next day, and whatever it is that we made, it sounds pretty great and pretty strange in equal measures. Keyword hints: evil priests, rumpy-pumpy, Michael Jackson, prison riots, rhino.

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We had so much fun working with Al that when we left the studio at long last we hit him on the head with a DI box and stashed him in the van. He regained consciousness behind the soundboard in Brighton, where he made us sound far better than we had in years, and then we hit him on the head again and drove overnight to Glastonbury. Arriving as the mists were clearing around the beautiful chicken-wire fences of what they call the “Artist Holding Area,” we waited for three hours in the cold dawn for someone to come take us to our stage. Trying to find somewhere to get a hot tea proved fruitless, so we opted for warmish cans of lager from a forgotten rider in the back of the van instead, and passed the time by apologizing to Al for all the kidnapping and convincing him that doing sound for us at Glasto was going to be super fun. As you can see, he seemed very convinced:

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Miraculously, several hundred people turned up to see us at our first gig of the day, and even more miraculously none of us passed out or threw up from pure exhaustion. We spent the afternoon napping in the stone circle on the top of the hill while forty neo-pagan ladies dressed in red danced around us in a circle while singing Christian hymns in Swahili. If this sounds strange now, trust me that at the time it all felt normal. Even soothing. Finishing off our Glastonbury day with a final evening gig, we wandered through the mud and the hippies and drove east past Stonehenge as the sun was setting. It looks even smaller than in Spinal Tap, someone said.

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We reluctantly set Al free the next day, with Stockholm Syndrome-induced promises that he would join us again on the next tour, and got on the ferry back to the continent. Fun times in Paris and Colmar awaited us, where we met old friends and made a raft of new ones. At some stage someone asked us to play two acoustic songs on a boat floating down a beautiful little river in Colmar, and then gave us an entire case of champagne. France, sometimes, is really the best.

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The last week of the tour was a whirlwind of revisiting old haunts in Tübingen, Nürnberg, and Göttingen, and it all wound up with us playing a disgustingly hot, sweat-soaked show in Hamburg with antifolk founder Lach, who we took with us to Berlin the next day, where the last show of our tour was somehow even more disgustingly hot.  At one point my feet slipped in a puddle of my own sweat on stage and I thought I was done for, but I avoided shame and possible tragedy by turning the fall into a jump into the crowd, where I learned to my horror that the audience was even sweatier than we were. One day Germany will discover air conditioning and it will change people’s lives forever.

The tour ended with a weekend of relaxing at the Down By The River Festival, catching up with friends, recording a couple more new songs, and then—of course—watching Jurassic World at the cinema, where we saw J. Mascis but were too afraid to talk to him. Dinosaur Jr. at the dinosaur movie. Best ever.

Goodbye again, old world. See you around the bend: in December for the release of Mathias and Ariel’s duo EP, and then again in a year or so when we release the weirdness we all recorded in Ramsgate.

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