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Keeping It Bleak

There are certain types of tours where you barely make it off the floor. And if you do, the couch is a sweet, sweet blessing.



There are certain types of tours where you barely make it off the floor. And if you do, the couch is a sweet, sweet blessing. In the fall of 2009, Elijah Forrest left Los Angeles with two other solo musicians in a 1989 Ford van that had been abandoned in a friend’s yard. Two hours out of town, they were overheating on the freeway in stopped traffic behind a Greyhound bus that was on fire. By the time they started moving again, the bus had burned to ashes and they had missed the first show of their tour. Their second show was scheduled to take place in a biodiesel van at an outdoor asphalt-covered park in San Francisco known as Toxic Beach. The cops busted it up before they even got a chance to play. Also, they had brought their dog along on the tour, a female Chihuahua named Joaquin, and sometime during that day a man had smashed her in the face with a cane, leaving her bleeding and traumatized. What a way to start a tour: van troubles, cops, and then someone hits your fucking dog.


Elijah plays heavily reverbed guitar sets under the name Terrors. My former band, Gowns, played with him at the Toxic Beach show, and I ran into him again in Baltimore, on the last show of a tour. Apparently, those first few days set the tone perfectly for what was to come on the rest of their trip. The van overheated and broke down in Wyoming. A stranger had punched a friend of theirs in the head outside a show after calling her a “noise bitch.” One of the other musicians had gotten food poisoning after eating dumpstered pizza, and they were all almost arrested in Iowa City for drinking in public. On top of all of that, somewhere along the line Elijah had broken up with his girlfriend, who was also on the tour, playing under the name Pussy Control.

While the above may read as a jaw-dropping litany of shit-luck incidents, the overall tally is pretty typical for a modern tour of the noise/performance/ atonal/not-pop/ not-rock variety. Broken-down van, bleeding money, missing shows, not getting paid, and eating trash… It’s hard to tell whether these conditions are the result of poverty, poor planning, or some sort of post-Black Flag nihilist extremism. It’s also possible that this lifestyle is somehow an integral part of the art form itself, as if the only way to get up every day and play an authentic harsh noise set is if you slept on a spare radiator the night before. But maybe the sad truth is that some form of tour-travel tragedy is now inescapable, no matter how well you save and plan, that touring in 2010 is such a shit-fuck gamble that the worst can happen to anyone at any level, and the odds are good that it will.


While these touring conditions seem to be the antithesis of most American kids’ dreams of rock stardom, others appear to thrive on it. To me, no one has typified this ideal more than the Scum Crew, which were a group of artists and musicians who played noise and lived filthily in various pockets across the country. Elijah describes them as “a bunch of boys and a few ladies who played music and got wasted together between Southern California and Oakland for a few years starting in 2005 or so. Membership was informal and hinged on speaking a coded lexicon of unrequited sexual depravity and acronyms. Bad jokes and worse nicknames.”

I first became friends with the LA faction a few years ago when I played a show in Seattle with Scum Crew members Deep Jew and Gator Surprise. I could tell right away that they were a motley crew. They had their own way of dress, sort of a cross between Green River and

Mad Max,

and their own vocabulary, in which the word “bleak” figured prominently. This was the band’s first transnational tour, and bassist Jeff Witscher describes it as “a self-inflicted disaster” with “plenty of laughter and goofing off.”

At the end of the tour, Kyle Parker (aka Gator Surprise aka Infinite Body) made a documentary out of the travel footage and titled it

Destiny Is Stupid

. There is a trailer for it on YouTube featuring the upbeat Del Amitri hit “Roll to Me” as a soundtrack to ferocious Scum Crew live shows and cutely boyish antics (swinging on a merry-go-round, completely destroying a PA, etc.) while all-caps text fills the screen with the alternating words “FUN” and “BLEAK.” “BLEAK” apparently wins, however, as at the end of the video the words change to: “KILL ME NOW,” “JUST FUCKING KILL ME,” and, finally, “I’M SICK OF THIS SHIT.” The line between irony and honesty is hard to read here, but when asked whether he would change his touring conditions if he could, Witscher replied that “there is no changing of anything” and that it would be like “trying to control your dreaming or a television show, and that is not an option.”


The conditions of Scum Crew tours, while extreme, are not uncommon. After hearing innumerous horror stories of bands running out of gas and/or having the van catch on fire, I began to wonder whether perhaps the show wasn’t the show and the band wasn’t the band. The experience seemed immersive, and the whole thing was less like a rock tour and more like a monthlong performance-art project on self-deprivation. Some would argue that the love of music might be motivation enough to keep going, to sleep on floors and brave cold and hostility. But let’s face it, most of these artists are less into music and more into sound and performance, and their sets are often five to ten minutes on a bill of six or seven other acts. Besides, can it really be all about the music if your gear is as likely to break onstage as not? As Witscher explains, “Nobody was really concerned about anything regarding the shows. Never any concern given seriously to the conditions of a show or a drive or financial matters or mechanical failures.” And as for the lifestyle: “When you are feeling strong from some kind of deprivation, it translates into your performance and you go into the whole situation with a lot of confidence. You’ve managed to legitimatize your situation in that you’re living without regard, so you can perform without regard.”

  But what about the good ol’ mom-and-pop question:

Well, how does it pay


? I’ve heard more than one midlevel indie musician say that touring constantly is better than painting houses, which is what they would be doing if they were at home. Well, sure, I buy that. But is it better than being a doctor? Better than owning a couch? How about a house? For most of us, just being able to cover rent on a shithole apartment in a bad neighborhood is a financial triumph.

The truth is, being a “rock star” was only a viable job for about 30 years, from the Beatles on

The Ed Sullivan Show

(1964) up to Kurt Cobain’s suicide (1994). Now it’s basically like being a spirit photographer or a phonograph repairman. If you’re in it for the money, then get out now. If you’re in it for the fame, I can only hope it comes to you in Winehouse/Lohan proportions.

Despite the extremity of the lifestyle, both Elijah and Witscher are committed to touring. Witscher considers it an “eternal phenomenon” that will “never run dry,” and Elijah concludes, “My willingness to put up with things that make others cringe is a byproduct of my worldview and maybe a sign of ill mental health from where the cringers stand.” Indeed, it may seem as though some of their experiences could serve as cautionary tales for more successful musicians who are pounding the same pavement. But what if it’s the reverse? What if the Scum Crew logic permeates every rung up the ladder, and the Deprivations of Bleakness have been secretly encoded in the lives of nearly every touring performer in every modern subculture? In this scenario, the Scum Crew aren’t the most masochistic mobile musicians in operation. They are merely the most honest.



When hearing that the touring lifestyle involves travel, art, and brokeness, our friends with real jobs ask, “But how can you put a price on creativity? On artistic freedom?” Indeed, it’s a question we all must ask ourselves every time we get paid $50 after driving eight hours to play in front of 20 people. And granted, it’s hard to determine the artistic value of a groundbreaking yet difficult new sound versus the latest rehashed pop hit. In fact, I’ve found that people are much more comfortable intuitively decoding the hierarchy of success of network-TV stars. So for the sake of analogy, here is a breakdown of the musical pay scale and its televised media counterparts.

Tier I:

Artists for the sake of art, making no money—more likely to actually lose money. These musicians not only don’t have health insurance, but each prolonged tour spent sleeping on floors, eating fast food, and drinking cheap beer probably takes years off their lives. Their closest television equivalent would be a completely fascinating documentary, mostly likely taking place in a country without electricity or running water, that gets shown on the Sundance Channel once late at night.

Tier II:

The weird, cool indie bands working low-paying jobs that allow them to go on low-paying tours. It’s possible they live with their parents (no shame here! Apparently even Kim Deal and J Mascis still do this), and if not they give up or sublet their apartments while on the road. They may or may not have health insurance, depending on how supportive their bar/coffee shop/food co-op day job is. TV equivalent: Adult Swim shorts. We love that shit, but does it really pay the bills?


Tier III:

Shitty bar bands that somehow have an inexplicable national following. Due to my purposeful ignorance of the genre, I researched this by picking a band at random out of Nickelback’s Top 20 MySpace friends. With the befuddling name On Tracy Lane (is that porno or geography?), their bio pretty much says it all: “After being based in 3 cities, 3 EPs, 4 music videos, opening for national acts, their music licensed to several TV shows, close to 2.5 million plays and views on MySpace and closing in on 200,000 friends, featured in

Radio & Records

trade magazine, recently touring in Greenland to play for the US troops, etc… On Tracy Lane has finally arrived.” WTF? We have troops in Greenland?!? TV equivalent: sad reality-TV stars.

Tier IV:

Doing good for now. Bands with two-page spreads in magazines, playing a midsize tent at Coachella. Probably making enough to cover their rent while they’re gone and not have to work a day job when they get back. However, it’s hard to say how long that will last and whether they will be able to make the transition from this band into another successful venture. TV equivalent:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

. Lots of people love


, but six Teen Choice awards do not a 401(k) make.

Tier V:

Temporary rock star. Your weirdo college band that debuts at #1 on the Billboard charts. This is a dream come true, but probably fleeting. How long before the current Ibiza-meets-Margaritaville revival gets deleted from Urban Outfitters’ playlists? Most episodes of


Behind the Music

don’t end with early retirement and kids’ tuitions paid. TV equivalent:



Tier VI:

Permanent rock star. These are Vegas odds. And, tellingly, most of the artists in this category started in the 60s or 70s. In fact, none of the artists holding the top-grossing tours of all time have even had a #1 single in this millennium besides Madonna, whose 2000 song “Music” reached the top after being leaked on the internet. The fact that the Rolling Stones hold four of the ten highest-grossing tours on record speaks to the fact that the megarich musician as a lifetime gig was a baby-boomer phenomenon. TV equivalent: