True Story: Sloan AmTour -- Spring '97 -- by Patrick Pentland (Names sometimes changed to protect the guilty.)
Well, we said we weren't going to do it, and then somehow we got talked into it anyway. Touring the United States was the undoing of our beloved band not three years ago, and we had promised that "The Man" was never going to push us into it again. And then we signed to the Enclave. You always get eased into these things.
Them: "How about doing like a week or two with this new, big band Fountains of Wayne?"
Us: "Sure, if it's not too long and makes sense."
Them: "It's just a couple of weeks."
And then the inevitable: "And while you're out there, Matthew Sweet wants you to play some shows a week after the Fountain's tour, so we'll book in a week of shows between the two legs."
And then all of a sudden it's a real tour, a month long, and you don't believe for a second that there will be a week of dates in between the two legs, just a week sitting on your ass somewhere (in)conveniently removed from anything remotely interesting, and a location too expensive to fly home from. But you want to put up a brave face. And then they offer you a bus, and it's harder to say no. Sell out.
We hit Atlanta running, ready for the onslaught of American "prove it" press, and the ever present (four tours on) "who are they?" syndrome. The first order of business, after faking our way through customs, was the always popular college radio interview. Both situations require a certain amount of creativity. The trap that you worry about falling into is that they take you too seriously.
With the customs people you have to act a little stupid, otherwise you risk out-smarting them and taking over the country without realizing it: "What is thy bidding, my master." With the college radio interview you risk confusing the host and taking over the show based on the fact that you know about bands pre-Garbage and you actually remember when play lists were unheard of and no one cared about "shares."
Then it was off with the gloves and onto the meat of the tour. Operation LOS (Live On Stage) was under way. We decided that our purpose was to blow Fountains of Wayne off the stage every night. Whether we did or not was up to the audience, but friendly rivalry never hurt anybody.
Atlanta was a "fly in", which is basically a way for bands with money to avoid horrendous over night/two day drives. It was the first date with the Fountains of Wayne. Created for MTV, the Fountains were the most confused band we have ever played with. Not really a band, yet made up of talented musicians, they represented everything that we will not become, and we made it our mission to make sure this was known by the audience every night. Their album was basically a prank-- "I bet we could get a big-ass contract based on those songs we wrote when we were drunk the other night." It took five shows before they broke down and actually came around to say "hello", but after that things were cool.
Atlanta became Washington D.C., into Philadelphia, into Boston. Then, in the middle of that leg of the tour, we had to fly to Vancouver and play some Fox-fest thing. The most poorly organized piece of shit that we have ever played. Murph fucked things up for us when he pushed their mascot off the stage and down a flight of stairs. They pulled our record from their play list.
Then we were back into the States and on with the tour. New York is always interesting. The show itself was great, we were "on" when it counted, always a problem in New York. But backstage was the usual zoo. Friends and industry drank all the beer and filled the cramped quarters with their cigarette smoke and kiss-ass conversation. Our friend Jackie was leaving on her own tour the following morning, tour-managing the Lemonheads, whose front man Evan was in full force, drunkenly taking the stage with the Fountains, and then scouring the dressing rooms, unsuccessfully, for beer.
Another saying goes: "If the beer's gone, I'm gone." We were quickly down on the street with a party to go to. Soul Asylum singer Dave Pirner's birthday party to be precise. Accompanied by an Enclave resident goddess and an MTV VIP, Murph, Scotty and I cabbed our way through the city to a small hole in the wall just in time for a piece of cake and a fight with the man that was responsible for the extended length of my telecaster's strap back in '8?. When we were introduced by our MTV friend I heard him drunkenly whisper "Are they anyone?" to which she said "Well, they're from Canada."
Then, after a few drinks, I tried to instigate a conversation with the birthday boy, which quickly became:
"Canada, eh? You guys are responsible for Celine Dion, man. You're responsible for that shit. And Alanis Morrisette."
To which I responded (which he didn't hear as he was dragged away by female company): "Well what about Neil Young? The guy you leeched a living off of for fifteen years?"
And then he leans back and yells: "And Rush, man, Rush!!"
People who know me know what a grave mistake it is casting any negative shadow over Canada's ambassadors of Rock. Restraining was required as I lunged for him, but he was quickly dragged into a cab and away from possibly the most dangerous night of his life. I vowed to do everything I could to destroy Soul Asylum. But I then realized that, by letting him live, I already had.
By the half-way point of the tour we changed from a van to a big rock tour bus, as the drives for the last half were going to be really long and had to be done as we slept. Our bus was actually an older one, and not as space-age looking as the Fountain's bus. We have had busses before, and one of the cool things about them, aside from the fact that they are basically a house on wheels, is usually the bus driver. Generally they have all kinds of stories about other bands. Our driver however, Dave, had driven mainly Canadian bands, most of which we know. Some of which I was surprised had ever been able to afford a bus. He had driven Rush, but for some reason I never got around to asking him about it. I wish I had now.
Speed was not, as it turns out, Dave's forte. Luckily the really long drives were towards the end of the tour. Buffalo and Detroit were our own shows, with the Fountains sitting out the first and opening the second. Since playing these cities is like playing in Canada, we did pretty well, and it felt nice to stick the Fountains on first for a change.
Then it was back to normal as we hit Chicago. This marked the first time the two bands actually hung out together, taking a night off in Chicago to go to dinner in a posh Spanish joint. Fountains' drummer Brian Young had the quote of the evening: "This Mexican shit's alright!" We were joined by Smashing Pumpkin James, who I had a (very) few words with at a bar later. The show the following night marked our return to the Metro where the last time we played, four years prior, I was deathly ill on hot dogs and ball park beer. This time I was healthy and the show was great.
Minneapolis was next. An early evening show, the venue was still fully lit by sunlight when we took the stage, and the audience were all seated at tables. There were several shows on that night, including Freedy Johnson, and Komida (with Canuck Kinnie Starr opening) so I guess venues were hard to come by. Then it was out to a record company dinner, Italian as usual, and the company of record pushers from various labels. Fun, and more importantly, free.
Then came the darkest hour of the tour: Denver, Colorado.
The Fountains of Wayne had said their good-byes and headed west, and we had time to kill before the Matthew Sweet dates started in the south. In typical Sloan fashion we were stranded from the 23rd to the 28th (April), not enough time to go home for a rest, and no shows to fill in the gap. It was decided that, since the next show was in Denver, Colorado, it would be nice to park up at a hotel and spend the week end in the relaxed mountain city.
Having driven for most of the 23rd, we arrived at the Denver Ramada Inn completely oblivious to our surroundings. After checking in and showering, Murph, Ferguson, and I decided to head out and find a late supper. The first thing that we noticed was that there was an over abundance of 24 hour porno theatres and liquor stores in our new neighbourhood. I was voicing my approval when we were stopped in our tracks by a gang of red-jacket-clad individuals who tore across the street toward us, past us, and into an alley after an individual we never had a chance to see.
Upon arriving at a Japanese restaurant I was challenged to a stare-down competition by a passing gentleman and his drunk, 300 lb. companion. Ducking into the restaurant there was no debate as to whether we were staying or looking at the menu first. I was getting spooked out by this city, although the other two were all "glass is half full."
The food was the first tangible sign of trouble. We ordered the standard fare and within seconds it was ready. An image of other people's half eaten food being cleared onto our plates flashed through my mind. The restaurant was about to close, and we had ordered quite a lot, and it took mere seconds to prepare it? Then the taste test. Suddenly we weren't hungry. My spirits were sinking. You can usually tell the quality of a neighbourhood by the quality of its Japanese food, which I love. It was obvious that we were in the wrong neighborhood. But cheer up, lads, its only for 5 days!!!
The walk back to the hotel, much longer than I remembered, revealed the identity of the Men in Red: Guardian Angels. Anti-gang gangsters. "But why," I thought "were they in the same neighbourhood as we were staying? Could it be that we were smack dab in the middle of Gang Land, Colorado? Who would book us into a hotel in an area like this? I should phone the office and find out. Oh that's right, they're all on vacation."
It seems that in LA, in order to deal with the overcrowded prison situation, they have a policy when dealing with gang related offenses where the convicted were often given a choice of jail or leaving the state. Denver was one of the more popular cities for ex-LA gangsters to settle. And also, it turns out, Canadian rock bands with nothing to do.
One of the saving graces was that, while street people wandered the hallways outside our rooms, I was ensconced in the world of HBO inside. And I got quite a bit of reading done. Although the book, a collection of articles by British rock journalist Nick Kent, was as depressing as my situation. Actually, reading about Iggy Pop waking up in a pool of green vomit in an abandoned building with a sixteen year old hooker beside him did wonders in lifting my spirits. That and hanging out in Andy's room, getting drunk, watching Leaving Las Vegas.
The days and nights blended together in a mess of fear and beer, until finally it was a show day again and my life was back to normal. The show was in a cool theatre in Denver, maybe three miles up the street from where we had been staying, in a much cooler area. The drag was that it was our own show, and the place was huge. And it was in America.
We spent the afternoon playing scrabble (I came in dead last!!) and recording an extended soundcheck on a little tape machine that may end up playing a big role on our next record. By the time the doors were open there was a trickle of a line up outside, and most of them were there to see the opening band, who had given 150 free tickets to our show at their last show.
We drove after the show to Salt Lake City. It was to be our first show with Matthew Sweet. A bit of a weird bird Mr. Sweet, his sound checks are totally closed to everyone, even most of his road crew, along with opening bands and club staff. He is also... bigger in person. His wife recently had a baby so he could have put on some "sympathy" pounds. There seemed to be a lot riding on him, and he has been doing this for a long time, so the whole procedure was understandable. Sometimes we end up looking a bit odd to show crews when we are on tour in Canada, because we have habits that can effect the way shows are organized. It was the same with the Sweet tour. Of course we usually tour with people who already know us, so they know what to expect, and we tend to watch our step, ensuring that they have as easy a time of it as possible. But the whole thing was different from what we are used to dealing with when opening.
When we arrived at the venue, he had been doing his soundcheck for hours. We ended up not getting a check, which was all right, although a little rude. I mean, he didn't sound that great in the end anyway.
A friend from Halifax happened to walk past the venue as we were standing around, and she came aboard the bus to tell us about her adventures while working in Mexico on the set of Titanic.
The show itself was okay, nothing spectacular. I was quite surprised at how small the place was, I had expected Matthew Sweet would pull more people. One thing that happened throughout the tour was that we would run into people who were "here to see you guys, man, no one else!!" This was flattering, but they all looked like the same guy; kind of plump, university aged, jockish, a Canadian going to school in the US. It usually meant that, while everyone else stood around wondering who we were, there was a row of three or four guys, Jack and Cokes in hand, dancing awkwardly and calling out "Underwhelmed, man!!"
The next show was in Tucson, which was a hellish drive. On the way into town Andrew drove the bus, as Dave had been driving for about fourteen hours straight. He did a pretty good job, too. I guess he'll have something to fall back on once he gets the boot. I was slightly miffed, however, as I have had legal problems in a town around that area, and I didn't want to attract any undue police attention my way.
Matthew Sweet mysteriously avoided the drive, and the show, by being involved in an "accident" in which one of the mirrors on the side of his bus was broken. So he went on to San Diego and had a day off while we beat it like Hell to the gig. We played the show with the other band on the tour, Fastball, who's guitarist Miles got up and sang Bowie's Jean Genie with us. The most fun we had on the tour. The club had some stupid disco ball that was on for most of our set, and made me dizzy when I was singing, all the lights rushing at me at a weird angle. It took several requests before they finally turned the thing off, but I was seriously going to smash the thing. Our friend Lara was there with news from home and her new American life. I used the club's cyber cafe to email Thrush Hermit and complain about the lack of air conditioning on the bus and how the rider hasn't been up to scratch.
Once again we drove overnight to San Diego. Hitting the coast was great, you could feel the salt in the air, when it could filter through the smog. Just being so close to the ocean made us all relax a bit. Sloan, after all, comes from a port city, and I didn't realize how much I missed the ocean until I was staring at it, even if it was the wrong one. We had lunch at a Japanese joint and let's just say it was lucky that we were leaving off that night (see Denver).
Matty Sweet made the show, although we had no soundcheck again. His wife and kid were there, as we were only an hour from LA where they live. Having a look at the bus there was no sign of any damage, but I was jealous to find a satellite dish on the roof. We only had a VCR, and occasionally you could pick up a local TV station if the moon was full.
We decided that we would drive the hour or so into LA that night, getting in late and avoiding the traffic. We stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt, where we usually stay, and had a bit of a swim before turning in around 5 am.
The next day was a lunch with the record company and someone from an industry magazine (unrecoupable bribery), and standing around the Del Ray Theatre, not getting a soundcheck again. Some tattooed stage crew guy was telling me about his other job was as a "fluffer". Basically he played with old male porn star's unmentionables between takes to make sure that they were "up" to snuff for the next scene. Sounded like a tour manager. But spirits were high. It was the last show, the next day we were flying home, and there were old Geffen friends in LA.
We manage to pull it off when it counted and played really well. After the show Jay and I finally had a bit of a chat with Matthew, although brief. He complained that we didn't hang out after the previous shows, but we said we had those long drives so it was a little hard to do, not having the option of "crashing the bus to get out of shit dates".
Beach Boy Brian Wilson was at the show, and saw our whole set. The Nick Kent book had several chapters about him. It spoke of his drug and sex addictions. My first sight of him was stuffing money between the breasts of a confectionery girl, having bought candy. It was a little eerie to see him just sitting there, with all these people walking past him, most oblivious to who he was.
Chris got a photo with John Doe from X.
I hung out with Melissa A. from Hole, and met their drummer Patty. Brenndan [McGuire] and I went with Melissa and Dennis Dennehy, mad Geffen publicist, to some bar ("Its not trendy at all... only everyone who's cool comes here") and met Eric from Hole and Loudon Wainwright III's son, who is from Montreal, or something. We even drove past the house used in Happy Days.
Brenndan and I ended the last night of the tour swimming in the hotel pool until 6 am. Dreaming of our two weeks vacation, we drunkenly bathed in the hot tub, watching the choppers scouring the streets for scum.
Late May. Left Halifax with Sandra (girlfriend) and Larry (guitar tech) to go to Windsor, with a very brief stop-over in Toronto to meet up with the rest of the lads. From there it was a border-hassled drive to Pontiac, Michigan, and a gig with Beck in front of some 5000 Yanks. Pavement was also on the bill, along with Soul Coughing (!!!).
We played fairly well, considering it was the first time that we had seen each other in three weeks. The crowd was cool, and I saw quite a few people singing along, coaching me on the words (seriously).
Our A&R from the Enclave was there, and we had to do some sort of interview crap for the label and MTV, that will probably never be seen. I was sporting a new haircut, a short lived spiky 'do, a la Twice Removed, which was gone the next day in favour of the messy thing that I have been sporting for the past year. Of course that interview will end up haunting me in some way for the next six months, as all these things do, and I will have that hair-do to cringe at. Its silly to have to think about these things, and that's why I find myself going slowly insane.
Beck was quite cool to watch. The rest of the band had seen him in TO, but I had never had much interest beyond the usual Much Music time filler. Just as he went on stage their tour manager came to Chris to say that they needed an opening band for Boston in two days, and wondered if we would do it. Mild interest was pushed aside by wild panic as Andrew didn't want to do it because he was having some big-ass party the same night in TO, and our Enclave pal came close to the A&R version of a brain hemorrhage.
With Andrew convinced that he wasn't going to be pushed out of a good time, it was arranged that he would fly to Toronto right after the Boston show. But the timing meant that he would be leaving the show before we got off stage. For some reason this was acceptable. But it was two days, and three flights, away.
We left the venue with Murph behind the wheel. That amounted to a half-hour search for the road to the hotel, the discovery that he had left the instructions (not to mention a cheque for $1000) on some bench at the venue, a trip back to the venue, another half-hour trying to find the hotel, getting there only to be told by friends who had already checked in that it was only two minutes up the road from the venue to begin with.
The next day, calmed by sleep, we remained a band and played a cool instore. The kids came in as we were jamming on a new riff that I had never shown the band before, and I was quite excited by the results, especially with strangers looking on. We did an unrehearsed medley of Smeared songs that went over well. It made me feel good to pay homage to those old riffs in such a small place.
Then, following the autograph stuff, we were tearing through the border and into the Windsor airport to fly to Toronto.
Larry, Sandra, and I stayed at an airport hotel. Two suites, of course(!!), while the rest were sent on downtown to their basement apartments. Since we got in late the only place we could get a bite from was a pick up joint called Arizona's. Boasting shit food, free pool, and Smithicks, we killed several hours happily, until we began to notice that the entire clientele was equal parts drunk airline pilots, well paid hookers, and drug dealing rich kids.
The next day we hit Boston. Upon arriving we embarked on a wild goose chase through the airport's various terminals looking for our rental van, Andrew's return ticket for that night, the road to the highway to the turn off to the road to the campus to the hall where the Beck loaders awaited. Of course we wasted about an hour getting the van, and nearly another trying to find where Andrew's homebound ticket was. The highway situation took care of another hour and a half, as we were smack dab in the middle of Friday evening traffic.
We arrived at the venue with less than hour to spare. Luckily we tend to rent, rather than bring, our gear for US shows, so it was all there waiting for us. As was Beck's road crew...who ended up being very cool. Beck, it seems, had lifted them from Sonic Youth, and you could feel a certain amount of "ready for anything/ seen everything" calmness about the whole operation. They said that they would hold the doors while we checked, which they didn't end up having to do. We even got our own monitor mixes, which is almost unheard of on big tours like that. Usually I get stuck with the deaf keyboard player's mix, all high end and TV signals.
The venue was an immense gymnasium, holding a sold out seven thousand hacky-sack-mad kids. It had a sky-light that I thought was cool, until I realized that we were going on before sun down. In daylight. Inside. We had a Fender Rhodes piano, so Andrew did his usual "jam" before we went on. Seven thousand people there, in total day light, and we went on forgetting that none have them had ever heard of us. They soon reminded us. It was fun for a few songs, but then the entire audience turned and stared somewhere to their left, toward and past me. It was Beck, up on the balcony trying to watch us undercover. That was the gist of the whole show, "where's Beck??" which is always a danger when opening for a big name act. We didn't go down great or horribly. We didn't really go anywhere. But we talked to Beck before he went on and he was quite nice, if really shy, and obviously exhausted. I got the feeling that he was really burned out from working so much.
His bassist, Justin, was very cool. He used to play in Medicine, and is a fan. He stood with Sandra on the side of the stage by me, and she said that he was freaking out during every song.
He was telling us about the tour during dinner. He said that they had two buses, which I had noticed at the Detroit show, and 23 people on the road. It was a huge production, semis and everything. But it paid off. I thought that the Boston show was one of the best I've seen in years, I was really impressed. Justin said that they were actually making money on the road despite the production costs. That is rare, especially for a band that is really still on the fringe in many respects. Beck has won a Grammy and sold platinum, obviously a star, but in terms of today's live market, most bands are tour support victims.
After the show we went to our (shit) hotel and went to bed. In the end it was a lot of bother and cost for nothing, really. I was glad that we did it, but I could see spinning your wheels in agreeing to do shows like that all the time. We are usually pretty good at saying no to things like that, not because we're lazy, but because, having our experience, we know how these "fairy tale" shows usually end up.
Years ago, Smeared days, we were offered the opening slot on a Tragically Hip tour of Canada. I was in Ireland, visiting my relatives, and was going to meet the rest of the band in London for our first European tour a week later. Peter Rowan called me at my Aunt and Uncle's place and told me the news. I was into the idea, being the only member of the band at the time who, at least, respected the band, or at least Downie, and their work ethic. The rest of Sloan were totally against the whole thing, based on the difference between the image that we were trying to cultivate, and what they had.
I was frustrated because I thought that we should take a step away from the safety of the "cool" net that we constantly navigated over, and try to move forward: how many times could you play Lee's Palace? But in the end they were right. Sons of Freedom got the nod after us and took the gig, and we played Victoria on the same night as they all did (ironically with Change of Heart), and the SOF bassist told me that every night they played to a sea of fuck-you fingers. All the audience really wanted to see was the headliner. And where are they now?
I think that, ironically, this is what frustrates bands like the Tragically Hip the most in Canada. They want to expose their audience to bands that they are into, or influenced by, but never really succeed because their audience, "the masses," aren't interested. In many ways, like Neil Peart, Gord Downie is the exact flake that a portion of his audience would beat up if they had the proper cocktail within to back it up.
I worry that, in charging a little more, or playing a little bigger, we lose the odd fan. But none of these things are done without incredible cost to the band and our feeling of self-worth. The only thing that we can do is face the changing tides like adults, as sad as that sounds in the shadow of Rock and Roll, and force ourselves to remain true. If we lose that, we lose everything. And we've done that before.
We flew to Toronto on the Saturday, with Larry going home, and Sandra and me going downtown to a hotel. We were only in TO to see my friend Cliff because his band, Thrush Hermit, and the Super Friendz, were in town at the Opera House. It was good to see Cliff, who had grown quite a beard. Mike Nelson, our Canadian merch guy, was on the road with the Hermits. Mike attacked me at the merch table, screaming about their Winnebego, and how we had doomed the band when we sold it to them. It seems that they had done the usual Winni-shuffle involving the engine disintegrating, if after an entire American tour. It was good to see them all and both bands put on great shows. Ian blew fire and set his bass alight, then stripped down to his white briefs and did his usual Jail House Rock thing. The Super Friendz got the entire cast on the stage for a butt-whipping encore that I barely noticed, but I'm sure was fantastic.
The next day Sandra and I rented a car and went to Montreal for a bit of a vacation.
Upon returning to Toronto we spent the night in another airport hotel. The next day Sandra flew home and I met the band to fly to NYC. We were playing the Mercury Lounge, which was our first real headlining show in NYC in a long time. There seemed to be much less pressure on us about this show than the Beck thing. But it was a success, we played for an hour and a half and the place remained sold out the entire time, and we made $1400. Peanuts compared to Canada, but great for NY.
Spent the rest of the night in a bar with some Canadian friends who live there. In NY, not the bar. The next day we went home, but were left waiting to hear if we were to go down to NY the following Monday to open for Radiohead at a small show they were doing prior to the release of their new record. I wanted to do it, but I also wanted to stay at home. We didn't get the spot, although we didn't lose it to another band, as they decided that they didn't want another band at all.
I was glad, because we were supposed to have the summer off, but there was a West Coast tour with Redd Kross in July, and a Japan-Thailand-Australia-Hawaii jaunt in August. It would be amazing to do all of that stuff , but having promoted this record since Feb. of last year, we all want time off and then we want to record a new album. But you never know in this crazy business we call show...
News Flash: Our US label disappears, everything goes haywire, and we decide to take the rest of the summer off.
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