A miniature-sized vial is thrust over the table. “Take this,” says the guy opposite, handing me what looks like a transparent roll-on deodorant bottle filled with clear liquid. “Rub it on your temples”, he explains. “It’s acid!”
The guy giving out hallucinogenics is called Matt and he’s part of the Growlers - a five-piece from California who, despite losing two band members, a credit card and a driving licence last night, appear in high spirits. And drunk too, it seems: wearing crop tops branded with the band’s logo, drinking from an open bottle of tequila, and squirting passing pedestrians with a plastic fish all before anyone has even considered eating the first meal of the day.
We’re on our way to Bristol - where the band join Fat White Family and the Wytches. The Growlers’ tour a lot - having released five albums since they started in 2006 - and this is the second date on the band’s UK tour - extending from a European run which saw them take in Germany, France, Norway, Belgium, Spain, and Sweden. In November they’ll return and do it again - and in between they’ll play a string of dates in America.
The bands invited me along with a pitch about the supposed debauchery that comes from being on tour and whether or not it’s any fun visiting service stations and venues with toilets that don’t lock for six months each year. But right now I can’t get over the fact I may have, inadvertently, taken acid. So, I sit back, and I wait.
And I wait.
And then I realise I am a naïve blockhead for believing you can get high after smearing what appears to be a natural spot cream on your skin.
A lot of tomfoolery takes place on tour. All it takes is a momentary loss of concentration and - splash! The contents of a two-litre Evian bottle have been dumped over your head or your nipples have been tweaked (or you wonder why pterodactyls aren’t circling the motorway, having been convinced you’ve taken acid for the first time). These are some of the results of spending innumerable hours with the same five people in the same cramp-inducing space; and it seems fun for a while. But there’s an obvious flipside to being the sort of band that travels in a sprinter van - one that separates the bands that have a passion for music, touring, and eating terrible food, rather than bankrolling and clocking in hours.
“I earn about ten times more than them”, Dr Kiko, their touring manager, tells me. Kiko used to be a pharmacist; and now he drives bands around. He’s appeared on two tracks by Mogwai and is really into bands that have played at All Tomorrow’s Parties. Two members of the Growlers have his name tattooed on them. And he’s since returned the favour; inking the words “Los Growlers” somewhere across his skin. Dr Kiko is a fascinating being - but it’s still a little disheartening when you realise most touring bands are penniless and the people that work for them earn more.
Aside from the odd grind trimming weed at a friend’s house, the band don’t really have jobs back home. Scott, the group’s drummer, films and edits video but that’s about it. When we sit down for breakfast they submit to the idea they’ll have to start handing out CVs after the tour finishes. But when I ask the group’s frontman, Brooks Nielson, whether they’ll actually follow through he replies with a cursory - “Nah, we won’t get jobs”.
So, being on tour then, is it. The band will have played hundreds of shows by the time the year is out. Here, they subsist on riders, Premier Inn’s broadband internet, and the two-for-one deals at motorway service stations. They do this for several months a year, spend a few weeks at home, and head out and do it all over again. And they’ve basically been following that cycle since they formed back in Dana Point, California, eight years ago.
When we eventually arrive in Bristol, with a slight-faux-acid-tinged headache in tow, you can see the other flipside to travelling around for months playing shows with your buddies. You don’t ever get to see where you’re going. Not really. You arrive at the venue for soundcheck, forage for something decent to eat on the rider, play a show, and head back to a hotel or a tour-bus to get to the next stop. You don’t get to wander around sampling culture. You don’t get to act like a band in a music video throwing cash from rooftops. All you see are the same backstage walls, the same flavour Walkers crisps, and roadies - who basically all look like they were cloned from the same fat-bearded bloke in a Tool T-shirt.
This is the bit where you, in your shitty 9-to-9.30pm in the Shepherd’s Bush branch of Robert Dyas, say “fuck you, bands get to travel the world playing incredible shows to people while I’m here knee-deep in priced gardening gloves.”
But this is only half true. You play good shows - you also play some pretty fucking terrible, disheartening shows.The next day we’re in Liverpool and the Growlers are hungover. They weren’t happy with the gig in Bristol - and you can see the effect it has had on today’s morale. Brooks’ slept on the floor of the van for the entire journey. No one is drunk. Everyone seems like they’ve been doused in melancholy. The only thing for lunch is whatever they sell at Merseyside petrol stations. Of course, it’s better than a lot of jobs, but there’s a permanent grimness to the non-existent pay, stale air and discarded wrappers of tour life that you can’t escape by clocking out for the day.
We watch a bit of the Wytches - whose moody, grunge-tinged fuzz massages everyone’s earlobes. And then it’s time for the Growlers to take to the stage again.
A lot of live bands are monotonous; they sound the same as they do on record, they look bored, and you don’t really feel any connection with them beyond knowing a few words to the tracks. But the Growlers are a band that deserve to be seen live. Not only do they sound great; Brooks should be given his own programme, the wisecracks and jokes that he makes are better than most terrestrial television shows.
The Growlers may be a great band. Their records are great, their live shows are great, and the people are great. But going on tour with them made me discover that, no matter how good you are, touring is pretty shit when you don't have any money.
Sure, it's a lot of fun. But it’s also exhausting; two days destroyed me more than any festival. We should pour one out for the thousands of bands on the road right now who continue to bring music into venues - not just around the country, but the world - at the expense of eating properly, being able to shit in a clean toilet, and actually earning money to survive back home. They're the bands that do it because they embody what it means to be in a band.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanBassil
All photos by Chris Bethell: @CBethell_Photo