Steveís Gig Diary: 2001 US Tour, Part One
Day 1 - Thursday November 7th 2002
Duncan and I get a cab to Heathrow after staying up for the best part of the night checking new sounds and labelling them all up. There's a whole lot of new stuff in there because Duncan decided to ditch the sampler that had let us down so badly in Manchester a couple of weeks ago. From now on we're solid state.
At the airport we are pleasantly surprised by the man at the check-in desk who doesn't bat an eyelid at our numerous flight cases, but lets us check it all in and not have to queue first. Result. Gary joins us from the Travelodge and we load all our gear onto a trolley, and watch it being wheeled away. The next time we see it will be at LA-X (We Hope).
Despite having checked in early there is still cause for mild panic as our boarding point changes from "no gate number" to "last call" in the time it takes us to buy some chewing gum and a couple of magazines. We end up running the last three and a half miles or so to Gate 35, and the prospect of missing the flight is too horrible to contemplate. It's not like there will be another one along in a minute.
All is fine when we get there, and we settle on to the huge Jumbo, I'm at the window, Gary's near the aisle, he doesn't care too much for in-flight observation. I had forgotten just what a long time eleven hours is on a plane, the seats aren't exactly luxurious either. The in-flight entertainment is a good idea in theory, but in practice the sound is either non-existent or hideously distorted. We then discover that if all three of us watch the same channel, the sound is perfect. Gary and Duncan settle down and watch three films one after the other, I read and monitor progress out of the window. We left Heathrow at noon with the sun bright in the sky, and it stays in the same position as we chase the light around the globe. Each time I open my little window shutter the people behind me get dazzled, but as they don't say anything I keep it up, I'm fascinated to see terrain I'll never set foot upon 39000 feet below, I just hope the engines hold up as I wouldn't want to see it any closer.
As we fly over Iceland's snowy ridges I can actually see glowing red volcanic activity below. The first half of the journey over the top of the world is uneventful. People then start to get up and wander around and things become a whole lot more fun when I realise that drinks are there for the asking. Three or four stiff Gin and Tonics later and it's party time. There's a big window at the back at either side so I move between the two as the view becomes more interesting. We are over Baffin Bay heading towards the North of Canada. There are vast mesmerising landscapes, totally uninhabitable until gradually single tracks, roads and remote buildings begin to appear, it must be bleak down there, but at least they don't have to put up with too many other people. The plains of America roll past as we head down the coast towards Los Angeles. It really has a ring to it that name doesn't it? Really enjoyed the flight through twelve hours of sunset (half a day in the sky).
We land at 1545 USA time, and I immediately try and think in these terms, rather than the 2245 it is by our clocks, as we still have a lot to do before we rest tonight, tomorrow, whenever. As we disembark it is uncharacteristically damp and drab in LA. "This is just like Manchester" sighs Gary. Horrible queues at customs, but no tricky questions much to our relief, we are helped by a woman from New Zealand in front of us in the queue who chooses to give the officials "an attitude" and is immediately taken off to rethink at leisure. We give them our best smiles, and we're straight through. The baggage collection belt offers a few scares as half the gear is there and half of it isn't, but we later find the outsize cases stacked nearby. It's pretty much a free for all at the airport, with little sign of that good old American service.
Darkness has descended and we now have to take a shuttle bus to pick up the hire vehicle. Gary and I leave Duncan with the gear, and eventually re-emerge with our van (after a couple of superfluous laps of the airport terminals), to find Duncan sitting surrounded by the gear playing his Rickenbacker Bass. Rock and Roll! The journey out of LA towards Claremont does not go strictly according to plan. We picked up a map from the hire place, but it only has about half of the roads on it. I think we're still on Highway 10 East, but we're not, we're in Compton and Watts. The atmosphere hangs heavy in the air, although the streets are quiet, but we see the LAPD in full glory with a guy in cuffs on the pavement, and another with his hands spread out on the back of the car. We look pretty conspicuous in our gleaming white vehicle with our gleaming white faces, let's get outta here! Straight Outta Compton!
Composure is regained, and we head back towards the skyscrapers of the LA business sector. Tiredness is starting to set in as the hour creeps past 2 am our time, the six-lane highways require a vigilant approach as our de stinations switch lanes with alarming regularity. We head for Pomona on the San Bernadino freeway and remain under the impression that Claremont is just off the edge of our map like the stupid bitch at the car hire place had said. To our delight and surprise we see an exit for Claremont way sooner than we were expecting it. When we finally stop to ask for directions to the Inn, Duncan has a quick look at the map. "Claremont's here on the map, look." "No it's not!" I say with all the ignorance of a navigator who is just about to look a complete chump.
Claremont's a quiet, clean town located on the Los Angeles/San Bernadino county border. The Inn where we're staying looks great, and there is a warm welcome from the manager who has a hunch that as musicians, we might welcome a cold beer or two and a hot sandwich. He is right. Unfortunately Gary and I mishear Duncan's room number and knock on the wrong door to alert him on our way to the bar, so he's left wondering where the fuck we went. We bring him back some food so all is OK in the end. Hit the sack at 2300, which means we've been up 24 hours. Wake up four hours later thinking I've slept for fourteen. Ah, the wonders of jet lag.
Day 2 - Friday November 8th 2002
'Weather wonderful wish you were here', The Village, Claremont
The weather is appalling and as we speak to more and more people about it the consensus is that they had not had rain like this for at least eighteen months until we got here. We feel even more like Manchester has come with us when we find cans of Boddingtons beer in the local liquor store. Gary and I are drenched from head to toe on the way back from our excursion, as a pick-up truck scythes through the rapids flowing down the side of the road. Are we having fun yet?
Back at the hotel we make contact with Pat Murphy from Radio KXLU, who wants to take us on all sorts of trips, except that it's monsoon conditions and well, we're a bit pushed for time. Time and distance do not seem to concern some of our American friends maybe they have more hours in their day than us. I phone Scott Smith the Progwest Festival promoter who is pulling in to the hotel as we speak, so we meet him in the lobby.
We then head out locally for some electronic necessities, not least of which is a device to hook up a CD player to the crappy cassette our vehicle is fitted with. I thought they were ahead here, but obviously not in the world of in-car entertainment. Mind you when I was here ten years ago, they didn't even supply a cassette with the radio, so I guess we've moved on a little. Our vehicle is an annoying beast that seems determined to work against us with a series of piss-taking beeps about seatbelts and lights, and the central locking doesn't even unlock all of the doors. We are already talking of taking it out to Zabriskie Point and painting it up with a big face like they did in the film.
Electronic essentials rounded up from Radio Shack, and Duncan having been offered a job in there already, we head into downtown Claremont to check out 'The Village'. It's clean and neat and pleasant but lacking one essential ingredient: Bars. There is not one single establishment dedicated purely to the art of drinking, restaurants galore, but no bars. The religious thing is really taken seriously over here. A fine array of shops and we find what on first glance appears to be a guitar shop, but to my delight it stocks lots of percussion and exotica. We spend ages In there hitting things before emerging with several purchases including a Calimba (plus contact mic), some Claves, a shaker that looks like an orange and a thing that makes noises like crickets but twice as loudly. Then on to the legendary Rhino Records, which is massive for a town of this size, there's Expose magazine with an article on us, and we're doubly pleased to see our album on sale in the racks. I emerge with two CD's but could have spent longer in there. We retire to a diner for coffee and promise the waitress we'll come back tomorrow for breakfast as we're not too hungry yet.
We then head up to the Seeley Mudd Auditorium, situated two blocks from the Inn and the venue for tomorrow. It's a great hall seating 450, with a huge stage. Meet a lot of the Progwest team including MC Bob and Mike Thaxton who was the 'RMI lobby' on the concert committee, and who has been known to go all the way to San Francisco from LA to get our CD's. It's largely thanks to him that we're here I guess, the merits of our marvellous music not withstanding.
Back at the Inn and Gary's guitar has "string rattle and intonation issues", largely to do with the truss rods (ouch). We eat in the bar where there is a Holiday Inn Prog Band going down. Same bad songs as any other band but with gratuitous 5/4's, 7/8's and stop-starts liberally sprinkled. The true spirit of Progressive music flew out of the window at more or less the time it was labelled as such. We can't see the band and Gary and Duncan can't tell what type of guitar their axe beast is using because he's got so many effects plastered on it, but when he's later spotted leaving with three guitars it seems nobody else can tell the difference either.
Up in Room 149, Duncan has all the gear set up on his spare bed, and as I knock on his door he's already got the Kalimba looping through the repeater. Gary's supposed to be joining us with his guitar, and an improvisation gets underway. Duncan augments the kalimba loops with Notron sequences and I go through a range of sounds. It's great making music spontaneously like this, by the end of it at 48 minutes I'm virtually asleep. There's still no sign of Gary and I heed the call to go to bed at midnight LA time.
Day 3 - Saturday November 9th 2002
Loneliness of the long distance drummer
We find out that the hotel is on the famous 'Route 66', and as Duncan says "I didn't think we'd be sitting in a hotel room on Route 66 making our next album", but that's how constantly amazing it is being here in the US. Our approach is very much that of the touring band rather than holiday tourist in that we haven't exactly done all the guide books and research so we are regularly surprised when we discover these things.We take breakfast in the downtown diner as promised, the rain continues regardless. People we talk to are greatly amused that in England it's like this all the time, and that if we get two weeks sunshine it's headline news, just like these conditions are making the news here. In a way it makes us feel less like we're in America, but we are buoyed by the promise of much better conditions over the next day or two.
Back near the hotel, we go to the supermarket to get some supplies in for later (we're learning to take care of the alcohol provision when we get the chance), and I am asked for ID to buy beer "Huh?" "We ask for identification from everyone who looks under 30" says the lady "How old are you?" "39" say I gleefully, midlife crisis temporarily averted.
The lady on the radio has just said she couldn't find her umbrella because she hardly ever uses it. 3.40pm: We've been to the venue and got totally drenched in the process, we left our CD's for sale with a lady called Amy because we haven't got anyone to sell them for us. Also we spoke to our Keyboard tech for the day, Mr Gene Stopp, it's through his amazing kindness that we have two Mellotrons and a Mini-Moog at our disposal today. He had a major hand in the restoration of the Keith Emerson Modular Moog, we let him know that we saw it barely a month ago in action at the Royal Festival Hall. We also spent time talking to Neil Sadler, an ex-pat musician from Norwich but now based in the Bay Area who plays with ex-Zappa men out here, and whose life is undoubdtedly more culturally enriched than it would have been if he'd stayed in Norwich. Steve Roach was also introduced to us and it is a pleasure to talk to a man who has been a giant on this small scene of ours for many years. He saw Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream in the glory days and his life was forever changed. We hear his music at KXLU radio the next day, it sounds terrific and I vow to catch up with some of his albums.
We sit around in my room and try and eat all the fruit we just bought, feeling tense and relaxed simultaneously. Not for the first time does Charlie Watts' summation of 25 years in the Stones come to mind ("5 years playing, 20 years hanging around").
Return to venue at 6pm, park the gear by the stage door and listen to Maudlin Of The Well, who come across like a cross between Space Rock and Death Metal and total respect to their Bass player who is playing with his fret-hand only, with the other in a cast. Apparently it was too late to change his plane ticket and get a substitute. Turnout in the Theatre is good particularly under the circumstances where the rain has doubled some people's journey times.
The musicianship is incredible, there's no denying, and we feel slightly gob-smacked: "How do we follow that?" says Gary, "By being ourselves, and totally different" say I. I go and see the lighting man with our set list, "What kind of music?" he enquires, "Sort of drifty and evolving" say I, or words to that effect "Oh Good" he says. At this point in the proceedings we are seriously beginning to question our being on this bill at all and are rather pessimistically expecting the audience to bugger off during our set, the closing concert of the evening. Then the old RMI spirit takes over, it's out of our hands and we should look at it like we're in a bubble, to which Duncan aptly adds "and it'll take a lot to burst it". More hanging around, and the Daemonia set lasts forever with bells on and encores to follow.
By the time they've Daemonized the house for the last time, we've got about three and a half minutes to get a sound. The stage crew are incredibly professional, and manage to sort monitor mixes out in record time. There is no panic just speed. The head guy has apparently worked for Madonna, so I guess this was a picnic for him, although he probably had the luxury of a ten and a half hour set-up slot (The half hour being when Maddy hops out of the limo and on to the platform to do her check one-two). Unlike so many of the dolts I've experienced in England, the onstage mixing guys are very communicative and actually turn things up and down when asked instead of ignoring you and concentrating hard on trying to look like they know what the fuck they're doing.
The drum kit is a Yamaha Custom with a delicious section of cymbals all ripe for a bashing. It feels soft and springy and the drums are a bit up close, but hey I'm a professional. I decline the double bass drum pedal option though... one has to see that these things don't get out of hand. I have to tune the snare up a bit, as it's obviously taken a real hammering, from shades-at-breakfast-beast but apart from that it's fine. We decide at the last minute to ditch the Hammond with Leslie that's also on offer, but for purely practical reasons. The set up onstage could have looked a lot better, but it's preferable to be in close proximity for communication during the gig.
With about 32 seconds to spare, I badly need a piss after drinking gallons of water all day, and am directed to the dressing room complete with it's own 'facility'. There's a guy in the 'can' next to the pissoir and he begins a conversation with me whilst sitting with the door open, trousers round his ankles, shitting and farting! He even remembers to wish me luck, in between bomb dropping.
I run up the stairs on to the stage in time to hear Bob say "first appearance in the USA, Radio Massacre International!", and we start behind the curtain as it rises. Gary is still deep in conversation with the guitar tech trying to get a good sound at a moment's notice from a Mesa Boogie Amplifier with about 38 knobs on it. Our experience of playing festivals is always like as (Coronation Street's) Percy Sugden used to say "making gravy under shellfire", you always think it's going to be smooth and relaxed next time and of course it never is. I am actually still out of breath as we start playing and then I'm expected to be ethereal at the drop of a hat.
Our experience is starting to show, and we settle into a direction during 'Wrecks', we calm down and our nerves start to dissipate. Duncan and I are each using one of Gene's immaculately kept Mellotrons, it's great to meet more of the Tron family. The response to our first piece is really good and I step up to the mic. I savour the moment and say "Hello America, (cheers) I've been wanting to say that for a long time" It's brilliant to discover that not only do people out there know our catalogue but they whoop and shout when I announce the next piece as being one of the 'Frozen North' pieces. Into the FNII/Black Cloud Over Rio/Improvisation in 'A' section and it's very strong, I get some good breathing noises from one of the new presets and then decide to play drums on the 'A' section once the sequencer is in full flow and it develops into a far longer jam, Gary adds some nice guitar towards the end, and it's great staring out into the spotlight and grooving away at the kit.
The weather, much remarked upon, has led us to bringing 'Rainy Day Song' into the set (Duncan having fashioned a quick 5 minute workout in his hotel room to check we had all of the bits). I tell the audience that Mr Gary Houghton is from the wettest place in England and that it is he who has brought the rain. (Showbiz!) After an assured performance of this, we're into 'Quiet In C' which everyone except me appears to have totally blanked on. I am left up shite creek, as Gary and Duncan look on admiring my stunning musicianship as I try and pump the Mellotron and accompany myself on the controller keyboard whilst trying to wrestle with two foot pedals. (Maybe it's their little joke 'Quiet In C' taken literally) It's quite a surreal moment sitting there thinking, "They're not going to join in! If I stop playing now the music stops altogether" Terrific fun. There is that great tangible audience silence during this section and I relax and enjoy the moment for what it is. Padarewski it ain't, but being accepted by an audience for what you are is a great thing indeed. 'God Of Electricity' is executed reasonably well with full kit, despite a shaky start and some interesting synchronisation problems! We drop a final sequencer improvisation in favour of 'A Minute's Silence', where an element of farce creeps in as 'God Of Electricity' begins again instead. We overcome this with a bit of the old RMI humour, and anyway, we saw exactly the same thing happen to Keith Emerson the other week at the Festival Hall, his sound guy cued in the Fanfares from 'Common Man' a track too early, Keith just shouted "No not that one!"
It eventually comes off with some decent guitar and not too many timing problems, but I think the lesson is not to try and be progressive, and to ditch any kind of backing. The response is terrific regardless, and if I'd thought and stopped ranting for a moment and left the stage at the appropriate time we may have managed an encore, I'm told it was a standing ovation which will do us just fine.
Buzzing of course the first thought is to the beer stash, and we get stuck in and nip outside for some air. We meet Steve and Jill who have followed us from the start and still can't get over the fact that we made it out here to play. Also meet Marc Todd a longstanding correspondent whose card has 'Surrealist' as his occupation. Chat to many more folks, and almost as an afterthought go out front to pick up the CD's, we've actually sold quite a few, with the prospect of several hours tomorrow to sell them at leisure and meet the folks for a bit of signing. It's an easy load out, and the rain has stopped. 'Rainy Day' obviously worked it's magic.
A couple of blocks back to the hotel, and a few more good wishes and thanks from folks who've arrived back from the gig, it makes a difference when people take the trouble, really it does. The Italians are on the prowl looking very serious. As we are listening back to our performance in the room and being pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised by the musical twists and turns we wonder what it must be like to be a band that knows 100% of what it will be playing, and if they ever bother listening back to it over a few beers and if so what they get out of it.
After all that hanging about followed by the sudden hour and a half of activity, my adrenalin's racing and I spend most of the next hour hopping on and off the beds, going out on the balcony and pacing the room while Duncan and Gary look on with bemusement. We demolish lots of beer. A great night it turned out to be, and worth all the effort to shape such a big day in RMI's history.
Day 4 - Sunday November 10th 2002
With Scott Smith and Mike Thaxton of ProgWest
A bit spacy but mainly sequenced ? Hmmmm...
After trying to knock down the prices in several luxury establishments, we are pointed in the direction of a Travelodge on 5547 Century Blvd which is perfect, and at $65 a night, reasonable. It's also very near the airport for our flight to Philadelphia on Wednesday. It looks a bit dodgy round the back of the hotel where the van is, so we take turns to guard it while the others get ready for the radio trip tonight. I shower in record time. We head over to the university campus for about 8 O'clock. It's the size of a village in itself and we eventually find the station on the fourth floor and load in. There's nobody there except the DJ on the previous show playing some devotional music for a Sunday evening. The place looks a little ramshackle. Pat arrives, and things take a nosedive for a while. There are no easy plug points, there is a great studio but nobody appears to have the keys for it including Pat. To compound it all, our desk has 1/4" Jack outputs and Pat can only take RCA and doesn't appear to have a converter. It's about 25 minutes until show time.
We eventually get the key from security, and Duncan is let loose on the studio, ripping out PC's, clearing piles of debris (this ain't a tidy place). Duncan single-handedly finds a way to make it work, and get a signal to the DJ booth. We're set up anywhere where there is space to put a keyboard and make a noise. While Duncan is single-handedly saving the RMI universe I tear round the campus in search of coffee and sandwiches for the troops, as we haven't eaten anything but two slices of pizza at the festival.
Back in the studio, Steve and Jill have driven over to observe the fun, and Dean DeBenedictis is here too, with various other onlookers. We launch the session with a guitar freeze and we're in the zone. We develop some sequencer lines and things start rocking along nicely, I turn to Gary and say "Good aren't we?" with a grin.
Mid-session, Pat invites us in for an interview, although it's clear that the guys aren't going anywhere just yet. It's a fun interview, which I enjoy, the first question is "Are you the leader of RMI?" Ha Ha. I immediately stress that the democratic nature of the band is the reason why it functions so well. Every aspect of the group's life is taken care of collectively or by those with the most inclination in their particular area, Gary takes care of most of the business, Duncan is largely responsible for matters technical, and I am the one who has most of the contact with the outside world. I just like talking about the band, especially when the person I'm talking with is actually interested, which isn't always the case! I'm totally comfortable talking on the radio like this. Duncan and Gary are still rocking underneath us next door, as Pat and I chat about Progwest and the upcoming concerts in Philly.
As a product of trying to monitor the interview from the DJ room, Duncan has gone a step further and introduced it into the music that's still going on underneath via the sampler. Particularly prominent is a looped "erm" from yours truly. I join them again and we coax another layered rocker with the sequencers, which peaks with Gary launching into a frenzied attack on the door frame of the studio with the neck of his guitar, shearing the paint off like a plane and managing to cut his finger too! It's nice to see a glimpse of the old tour madness emerging, and it makes for a searing great noise.
We depart about midnight and hit the hotel to party and check out the night's work from the Mini Disc. We only have small speakers to listen on, so it gives us a good idea that it's gone OK, but leaves us something to look forward to really getting into on bigger speakers when we get home. We finally get to eat our cheese and ham subs twelve hours after food last passed our lips. It's a great session and will definitely provide some material for future use. This was an aim of the trip, to record as much new music as possible, but in interesting circumstances.
We now have Monday and Tuesday off and our intention had been to go to Death Valley, but doubts are setting in when we realise the enormity of the undertaking in terms of hours on the road. Dean had said we'd be looking at 7 hours from LA, and what with Zabriskie Point being about 3 hours into Death Valley and therefore 3 hours from anywhere to stay, we reluctantly agree that it's just too difficult. This time anyway.
Day 5 - Monday November 11th 2002
Another Monday Morning
Santa Monica Pier
Dolphins, Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway
We aim towards Hollywood because Gary wants to see 'The Lettersí. Of course being a band on tour means that youíre not allowed any tourist guides or information as to where might be the best vantage point, you just drive blindly in the general direction and hope to find it. We drive through one famous area after another: Mulholland Drive, Beverley Hills, Bel Air... fantasy places, all on Sunset Boulevard which runs all the way from the coast into the heart of Hollywood. As we pass number 10000 (which should give an idea of what a long road this is) Sunset thereís a woman getting out of her chauffer driven car, I wonder who. As we get further inland we hit Sunset Strip which just radiates cool. We are about to run out of petrol and hit a gas station just in time. As we fill up I see The Whiskey A Go-Go (8901 Sunset) literally across the road. This is the place The Doors, Love, The Byrds and countless others made their own in the Sixties, and unlike Londonís Marquee it hasnít been moved several times, to end up in an entirely unrelated area and being owned by one of the dullest musicians ever to walk the earth. Amazingly a few doors down is the just as famous LA Roxy (9009 Sunset). Two for the price of one, and we only stopped for gas. Thatís the thing about being in a band, you donít need a map to find these places, you just gravitate towards them.