Sean's Tour Diary - Part 2 of 6

The Long Winters official website
Sean Nelson
Publication date: 
June 30, 2003

Sean's Tour Diary
Part 2 May 28-June 1

Day Six & Seven / Wednesday, May 28-Thursday May 29

Detroit, MI/Windsor, Ontario. Border crossing.
“My name’s Tim and I’m a criminal.”
Rock band border crossings are either nothing or terrible. I have only
endured one terrible one, but it was, in fact, terrible. Not as terrible
as the stripped-van, body cavity search ones, but terrible nonetheless.
Basically, it’s a crap shoot. Sometimes it takes 10 minutes, sometimes
it takes six hours. Sometimes they wave you through, sometimes they make
you pay $500. Only a fool or a smuggler would try to sneak through something
illegal, but for some reason, I always think of Glen Frey at the Canadian
border and wonder if I look like one of the obviously guilty small-time
crooks on Miami Vice.
This outing starts pretty smoothly, except that when the guard at the
first window said hello, John mishears and nervously blurts the word, “VISAS?”
To which the guard responds, “I said, ‘howdy,’”
and everyone laughs heartily. Everyone except the guard, that is. We pay
the toll, cross the tunnel, and pull over for inspection.
Directed to get out of the car, open all the doors, and stand by the wall,
we comply, and a small team of Canadian border agents with guns starts poking
around in the van. No big deal. At one point, John is called over to answer
some question about our amplifiers or something, I decide to have a smoke,
and as is customary, Michael and Eric both bum one off me. No sooner are
we all lit (three on a match, damn your eyes!) than the guard shouts, “No
smoking permitted. Can’t you read?” We turn in perfect graceless
unison, like the Marx Brothers (more like the Three Stooges), to read the
huge red painted signs that say “NO SMOKING DEFENSE DE FUMER”
that all three of us are STANDING DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF, WHILE SMOKING. Sometimes
in life the only appropriate response is nervous laughter.
Inside, now, we are waiting for the nice border guard to process our forms.
For all we know, the van searchers are trying on our clothes and retuning
our guitars. At least we get the nice one. We could have gotten the grumpy
Canadian sea turtle with whom he shares the graveyard shift. Our guy is
genial and succinct. The other guy is straight out of civil service bureacracy
hell (circle four, I believe; just above advertising). While we’re
waiting for our guy to find a crucial mislaid fax, a man fresh from the
Busta Rhymes show joins us in line. He draws the short straw. Sea Turtle
makes no effort to adjust the condescendingly suspicious tone in his voice,
and prolongs every hassle with maximum care. The message is clear enough—the
man is black; Sea Turtle is a bastard.
After demanding and receiving the man’s driver’s license,
ST waddles at a comically slow pace across to the other side of the desk,
presumably to check some list, then waddles back. Though he’s a fatuous
little turd of a power junkie, his act is working. It’s tense in there.
It’s a border crossing, after all. Everyone could be a terrorist.
Then he blows it. “Where’s your driver’s license,”
asks Sea Turtle. “It’s in your hand,” comes the reply,
and everyone on our side of the bulletproof glass collectively stifles a
laugh, like an entire room hiccuping at once. Sea Turtle is red faced, now,
and not with anger. He processes the guy, who exits, off to pick up his
son, leaving us to attend the aftermath.
But Sea Turtle takes a different tack with us. He feigns politeness, asks
about our band. We tell him it’s a rock band, and ask if he ever goes
to see live rock music. “Oh no,” he says, in a tired husk. “My
rocking days are over. I’m an old man now. I figure the only rocking
I’m gonna be doing is in a rocking chair.” And with that, he
explodes with laughter, sucking air past his moustache and repeating, “rocking
chair. Haw haw haw.” The best is yet to come, however. About three
minutes later, another agent comes into the cage and Sea Turtle regales
her with the story of his latest off-the-cuff bon mot. “Rocking chair,”
he repeats with a snuffle, then waddles off to complete his busywork.
Rocking chair, indeed. It would become something of a mantra for the rest
of the tour. In fact, if we were the kind of band that names its tours (and
who can forget Bowie’s Glass Spider?), I’d be hard pressed to
think of a better title for this one. It’d look good on a satin jacket,
I’ll tell you that much.
After enjoying the privilege of forking over $450 Canadian for work permits
(where’s NAFTA when you need it?), we’re out of there, but before
we can suck the wharf dregs of Windsor, we have one last exchange with the
van searchers. The burliest, youngest, scariest one “asks” if
he can keep one of our “promotional CDs,” which is already in
his hand on its way to his pocket, so we offer it with our compliments.
Enjoy, and we’ll see you at the Pita Pit.
We make it to London before crashing out at a Comfort Inn.

Day Seven / Thursday, May 29

Toronto, Ontario. The Horseshoe Tavern.
W/ Nada Surf, Sondre Lerche.

“All my changes were there.”
I love this club and I love this town. We arrive early enough to spend
a little time walking around downtown, which despite my fond memories, turns
out to be pretty Canadian. Though I counted 13 Starbucks outlets on the
way into town, it proves very difficult to find a decent cup of coffee within
walking distance. Sound check is uneventful, except for a brief disagreement
with the sound guy about stage volume. It’s hard touring without a
sound person, because it effectively means that every night, you must trust
a different complete stranger to interpret and express your band’s
sound, usually based on only one, possibly two songs. Sometimes it works
great and you find yourself in the capable hands of a professional audio
engineer who knows how to mix a room. Just as often, however, you wind up
with a frustrated hesher who’d be better suited to running the Tilt-a-Whirl
at the county fair. (For more on this subject, I heartily recommend seeking
out a zine entitled Hey, Soundguy!, by Corin Tucker, published about six
years ago, )
Still, The Horseshoe is a fine club, courteous with its hospitality and
straight up about money; the house mixer seems competent enough. Our set
gets off to a bumpy (and early) start, but we play enthusiastically to what
feels like passive approval from the half-full room. The between-song chatter
fails to stimulate the crowd overmuch (though John’s line about the
“super aggressive Canadian foreign policy” makes me laugh pretty
hard), so I reach into my bag of performer tricks and pull out the hoariest
chestnut of them all: the name drop.
Last time I played the Horseshoe, I shared the bill with one of the great
undersung Canuck rock bands of the last decade, Thrush Hermit. As soon as
I say their name, a cheer goes up, and before long, we’re doling shouts
out to as many Canadian rock bands as we can think of (“Sloan, and
also… uh… Sloan…”). Speaking of name dropping, I’m
pretty sure I saw a member of Sloan walking around the club that night,
in addition to three or four other legitimate Canadian rock stars, a couple
of whom I know a little. So there.
In all, the show is strong. We are becoming more poised and more confident
in the newer material, and as usual, the timid audience response is belied
by the comments from people we meet at the merch table afterwards. The shows
feel purposeful, and productive. We’re not just touring to sell t-shirts.
(That last line would be especially funny if you knew how many t-shirts
we sell.)
After our set, I grab a quick drink—three strong margaritas, actually—with
an old friend at a tacky Tex-Mex bar across the street. When I return, I
can’t help but marvel that Nada Surf has drawn a huge crowd. It’s
their first Toronto show in several years and the people turn out in droves,
loudly shouting requests from the first two albums, which the band clearly
finds gratifying, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has ever released
a surprisingly successful major label debut and a hotly contested, commercially
disappointing follow up. I must say that I take insupportably personal pleasure
in watching Nada Surf’s current wave of success, both on tour and
from deep within the sidelines of Barsuk. They’ve worked incredibly
hard, in the kind of conditions that frequently kill bands dead, and they
have prevailed. You’d have to be a Pitchfork writer not to see the
beauty in that.
Lo, I digress (again).
Post show, we close the bar, and chat with a few of the aforementioned
luminaries of Toronto Rock City. Good day, indeed.

Day Eight / Friday, May 30

Montreal, Quebec. La Sala Rosa.
W/ Nada Surf, Sondre Lerche.

“Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows.”
Ah, Montreal. My second favorite North American city. City where you can
speak a little French if you want to. The most cosmopolitan place in Canada
by a factor of millions. The land of milk and poutine. My previous adventures
here have been incredibly fulfilling, and I’m excited to return, even
for a day.
Less exciting is the news that the club is located on the third floor
of an elevator-free building, and we can’t soundcheck because the
Mexican restaurant on the second floor can’t abide the noise during
the dinner rush. Once we’re up and in, the place is revealed as a
totally charming space: proscenium stage raised about four feet and swathed
on all sides by deep red curtains, at the back of a long room with hardwood
floors, a bar, and tables to the side. Nice one. My friend Court is in town,
visiting a friend (of his little sister), and on the lookout for something
good to do after the show. Check. In the meantime, I wander the beautiful
streets and sit in a cute little park with coffee and a book, and I don’t
think about the band or the show or the tour or the quitting of the job
or the sweetheart back home or the thousand natural shocks that flesh is
heir to. If I have time to read, life is automatically better.
Reading is a difficult proposition on tour. Despite the long stretches
of unbroken time, it requires superhuman concentration to focus your attention
on a book. It’s much easier to watch the landscape pass at 80 miles
an hour and worry about your life. But tour is also rife with opportunities
for perfect reading moments—the exact right book in the exact right
place. Such moments are rare, and require vigilance.
Until now, I’d been picking my way through a terrible novel written
by a complete fraud because I had to write a review of it. But I was hungry
now, so I pulled out my fail-safe, the book I always carry on Long Winters
tours as a bulwark against the colossal drag of having time and nothing
to read. Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger is perfect tour reading. The stories
are as exquisite as haiku, but cover massively complex emotional ground.
And each one has the capacity to work me to tears. I choose “For Esme,
With Love and Squalor.”
Then it gets dark and I go back to the club. The show turns out to be
KILLER. We really connect tonight, with an audience that is large in number
and large of spirit. After the first song, I read a brief disclaimer in
French, stating that we are delighted to be here, that we do not really
speak French, and that even though Nada Surf is fluent, we hope our set
pleases you just as much as theirs. It goes over well, and the rest of the
show is borne aloft by reciprocal amour. Nada Surf completely slays tonight,
and for the first time on this tour, they play “Popular,” much
to the delight of the Long Winters, who stand at the side of the stage and
cheer them on.
Afterwards, however, things get un peu bizarre. Court’s friend has
invited us to “an apartment a few blocks away” for a gathering
in honor of McGill University’s graduation day, which is tomorrow.
After a brief nosh at a kebab restaurant lit more brightly than a hospital,
John and I, accompanied by Ira Misdemeanor Elliott (Nada Surf drummer),
split a cab to the soiree… which is not, in fact, a few blocks, but
a few miles away. In addition, the small gathering (I’d pictured about
ten people sitting on couches, drinking wine and talking about their fear
of the future) turns out to be a massive bacchanalian—three stories
of a gothic brownstone, swollen with more university students than I’ve
seen since NYU orientation day, drunk, stoned, and dancing. Deafening music
blares from each floor, and everyone is a complete stranger who looks young
enough to be my grandchild.
At length, we locate Court and his retinue, and commence to the awkward
business of finding refreshment and talking. Suddenly, John is seized by
terror. He can’t find his bag. He left it at the restaurant. Thunderstruck,
he borrows my phone and bolts outside, sprinting (I later learn) all the
way back to the kebab shop, leaving me and Ira to fend for ourselves, which
we do just fine despite worrying about our friend. I’m also a little
concerned that we might have trouble getting in touch with our party, since
neither of us has a cell phone. No matter. These things always work out
eventually. Court’s friend rolls a truly impressive hash joint and
we all chill upstairs, talking merrily about the glory that is Yo La Tengo
and getting our respective swerves on. Then some guy commandeers the stereo
and starts playing Metallica. All Metallica. Needless to say, it’s
time to split. We fight our way down three flights through teeming hordes
of drunken Canadian youth, only to see the big blue van pull up just as
we make it outside. John has found his bag. All is well. We’re off
to Ottawa. Ira rides with us, and we talk all through the night. Mainly,
he talks. I listen. He has many incredible stories about his life in rock,
stretching back to the early ‘80s. By the time we make Ottawa, it’s
nearly 6AM, and I ask if Ira minds sleeping on our motel room floor. “I’m
a pro,” he says gamely. “I’ll sleep anywhere.”

Day Nine / Saturday, May 31

Ottawa, Ontario. Babylon.
W/ Nada Surf, Sondre Lerche.

“Annoint my head. Annointy-nointy.”
The first and funniest thing I see upon arrival at the club is an entry
on the guest list, presumably written by Sondre Lerche’s crew. Seems
tonight’s show will be favored by the presence of the Norwegian Ambassador
and his wife. This will be our last night with Sondre. He is a very sweet,
exceedingly shy 21-year-old kid who has been a huge rock star in his native
country for several years already. The record he is touring (alone) to support
is already two years old, and his campaign to conquer North America has
only just begun. I don’t believe he and I have said more than ten
words to each other on the whole tour (his crew is even more tight-lipped),
but we all wish him well.
Tonight is another early show, which by this time on the tour is cause
for celebration. It means there might be time to eat a proper meal in a
decent restaurant, and maybe even to see a movie. The luxury of sitting
down to eat without worrying about the drive ahead is rare enough on the
road that when it comes up, people tend to treat it with reverence. A plan
is hatched. Daniel (Nada Surf’s resident gourmand) locates an Italian
place, and as soon as the show is over, both bands load out in a hurry.

The set itself was fine, though the dim daylight streaming through the
club’s plate glass windows made it hard to fully immerse one’s
self in the rock. No matter, we had dinner plans. After some transit-based
consternation caused by the dubious driving talents of a certain member
of our party—I’m sure he’s an excellent tour manager—we
sit down for what turns out to be a pretty splendid feast. We eat, drink,
and are merry for two hours, talking shop with the Nada Surf boys for what
will be the first and last time on this excursion. Only two more shows remain
of our tour, which lends a bittersweet note to the proceedings, but also
adds the incentive to make it a real bro down. After dinner, we go back
to the motel, and all hang out together. John and Matthew trade licks on
acoustic guitars, while Michael and Ira compare notes about their porn preferences.
As night becomes morning, we watch The Man with Two Brains on Daniel’s
laptop DVD, and the room eventually thins out.
Looking back over these diary entries, I note that my writing about Nada
Surf runs the risk of being too fawning. In my defense, however, let me
say that touring is a very lonely business. Despite the fact that you’re
almost never alone, you keep extraordinarily close quarters with the same
people for the whole time you’re gone. No matter how close you are
with your company, the desire for a little outside stimulation becomes paramount
in the quest to maintain your equillibrium. The experience of finding fellow
travelers you really get along with, who share common cause and have your
back, and who play music you genuinely like, is one of the richest rewards
the life of a touring musician has to offer. The biggest challenge of being
in a rock band is determining what kind of band you’re going to be,
and no matter how pro you might think you are, you’re still basically
making things up as you go along. The voyages of the starship Long Winters
have been marked by intense discussion about what we’re doing, and
why we’re doing it. Though things have gone, and continue to go incredibly
well for us, the chance to tour with other bands—not as rivals, or
strangers, but as friends—offers us a much-needed window into someone
else’s band-building process. After more than 10 years together, Nada
Surf has enjoyed more success, and weathered more struggles than most bands
will ever have to contend with, and they have emerged happy, self-assured,
and well-respected—exactly where they want to be—all as a result
of the kind of work we’re all out there doing. Forgive me for fawning,
but I find that kind of success totally inspirational.

Day Ten / Sunday, June 1

Quebec City, Quebec. Kashmir.
W/ Nada Surf, The Awards.

“I’d rather burn in Canada than freeze here in the South.”
I confess that I am a huge Francophile, so the chance to visit the Frenchest
of all French Canadian cities is something of a thrill. None of us has ever
been to Quebec City, and the sight of its quaint little chalets, set atop
impressively manicured hills, is bracing. Unfortunately, it’s raining
and cold, and the club kicks us out for three hours immediately after load
in (up two flights of stairs, again, thank you very much). I wander through
the touristy neighborhood, browsing the record stores (does 450 Canadian
seem like a lot for a Serge Gainsbourg box set?), and haberdashers (I convince
Ira to buy a hat that makes him look like a character from The Taking of
Pelham 1-2-3), settling eventually on a large brasserie, where I hope to
finish reading my stupid book review book. But it can’t hold my attention,
so I wander some more. By the time I get back to the club (still not open)
I’m more than a little cranky, because every interaction I’ve
had with the Quebecois has been informed by a brusqueness (theirs) that
boggles my mind.
As I mentioned above, I love all things French, and approach the language
with a reverence reserved for things I can do a little, but wish I could
do well (cf. playing musical instruments, cooking, acting, writing, et al).
I also understand the whole thing about American tourists, and how the onus
is always on us to disprove the perception that we are all black-socked,
Bermuda-shorted louts in search of a Big Mac and a t-shirt. I get it, and
I respect it. I do. But goddamn. J’accuse! In Quebec City (unlike
Paris, or even Montreal), the expectation is that French is not only the
main language, but the only language, indeed, the only acceptable mode of
communication available to the citizenry. Even if you prepare a brief, apologetic
preamble, in passable, unaccented French, kindly requesting a little understanding,
you are met with a disdainful sneer. Even that would be all right, but then
they keep speaking French, fast and furious, almost as though they were
out to make you feel worse than you already felt in their quaint little
tourist village where you can’t even get a decent café creme.
C’est une honte!
Meanwhile, back at the Kashmir, the doors finally open, and a very young
crowd spills inside the small room, filling it to capacity before the local
openers (they sound like Weezer, with unintelligible Franglais vocals—not
bad at all, actually) have even taken the stage. It’s going to be
a hot one. Our set goes over pretty well, despite the language barrier—given
the prominence of lyrics in John’s songs, this is a more serious consideration
than you might think—and we seem to make a strong impression.
Afterwards, I have a lengthy conversations with a Quebecois student, who
acknowledges, but does not apologize for the deep linguistic chauvinism
of his countrymen. It’s in our character, he says. Speaking French
and French alone is the only real form of resistance available to the separatists,
about whom he could not care less anyway. What he cares about is indie rock.
He loves Barsuk, especially “Nadazurv,” and “Dess Cab
feur Cu-TEE.” Now, he says, he is also very much interested in Zee
Long Weentair. He buys both records and a t-shirt for his incredibly foxy
girlfriend. Eh bien, je vous empris, monsieur.
The club has booked us a hotel room in town, but Nada Surf is eager to
get home to Brooklyn as soon as possible, so we say a few hasty goodbyes
and part ways. There are two full days off before the next and last show
with them, in Hoboken. The time off will allow us some much-needed R&R
in Maine, at my friend’s parents’ palatial seaside compound,
no less. Our first trip to Canada has been a success, and now it is time
to bid our neighbors to the North a fond adieu.