Over the last week we completed what I (somewhat inaccurately) refer to as the "Southwest" part of our tour: Santa Ana, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tempe, and Austin.
Much like the Jesus of the Gospels, we were tempted and tried by Satan in the desert. This was unambiguously the most difficult part of the tour so far (and I predict it will have been the most difficult of the whole trip). Just like the Midwest/Prairies section of the tour, it included many long drives but this time without the early-tour excitement and idealism. We approached and passed the midpoint of the tour. Psychologically this is the foundation for a 'homestretch' mindset, but not yet close enough for a proper actualization.
Themes of this segment of the tour
Thinking about "touring"
During this past week, I have thought a lot about the practice of "touring," both the economics and practicalities of the activity itself as well as the way touring fits into the wider business of music. What makes a good show? What type of atmosphere is it? What types of people are there, and why have they come? As a touring musician I feel compelled to answer these questions for myself, over and over, and in doing so take steps toward making our shows better for ourselves as well as our audiences. The initial excitement of being professionally involved in the music world led me to uncritically accept a lot of ways of doing things that, seen from a different perspective, appear as merely one among many.
I have a long way to go, but being on this tour has so far left both Matt and myself with the impression that the way we conduct ourselves as musicians should start with a consideration of the relationship between ourselves as a writers and performers of music and the audience (actual and potential) that is listening. I should ask myself, "Do I believe in what the music is communicating? Do I believe in the words I am singing in that music?" If yes, continue. "Who am I as a performer? Under what conditions do I like to perform? Who is listening and what are they like as audiences? Under what conditions do they like to participate in our music?" Whatever the answer is to these questions should be sought out and practiced.1
The reality is that seeking out and practicing many of the answers to these questions puts us at odds with the normal practices of the music industry, which is a daunting and somewhat disheartening thought. But in the end, making our performances as enjoyable as possible for us as well as everyone who wishes to participate is an imperative.
Renewed seriousness with respect to performing
Early on in the tour I emphasized the 'unexpected' in our performances. I tried to go against the grain with respect to my own activity onstage, and I also encouraged spontaneity on the part of the audience. There were definite exceptions, but for the most part this took place as a comical or absurd counterpoint to the seriousness of the songs themselves. In the best of cases, these moments were celebratory and were meant to cast off a sense of the 'reverential' in favor of something more open-ended.
Upon further reflection, this need to defy expectations may have in some part come from the unfamiliarity of headlining a tour. By emphasizing the 'unexpected,' I was also shrugging off the expectations that come with playing for an audience that is almost solely there to see us perform. It allowed us to flirt with not accepting the responsibility of 'being Majical Cloudz' and instead being something else. In doing so I avoided direct contact with the emotion contained in the music and the way in which it has begun to take on a life of its own in our audience.
This activity reached its logical conclusion at the Santa Cruz show, when the theatrics outweighed the songs themselves, possibly destroying the foundations of our performance in the process.
The show the following night in San Francisco rectified my attitude toward performance. Something about that night made me realize that I shouldn't try to hide from the relationship with the audience, and that they are coming here to see us perform and so that's all we have to do.
This new perspective was put into practice in the shows on this section of the tour. Some of them were not 'good' shows in the sense of turnout, but they were very fulfilling because instead of distancing myself from the audience through humor I reached out to them with an attitude continuous with the tone of the music, and it was rewarding.
In Santa Ana there were ~25 people there. Out of a desire to somehow alter the environment in order to make everyone more comfortable, but wanting to draw people in rather than push them away, I very quickly invited people to come sit on the stage:
"As the show was lightly attended, I started the show by telling everyone that they were free to watch the show from the floor, or from the stage, or from anywhere else that they wished. They could move to and from the stage whenever they wanted to. In situations where we are playing to a small audience, I never want people to feel like they are bound to their place in front of the stage. People took up this offer and sat on the stage, so the audience was in a 360-degree circle around Matt and myself. During each song I would turn in a circle so I could sing facing everyone."
The show itself was very serious – this change in environment just made everyone more comfortable and did not alienate.
The show in Tempe, AZ a few days later was a test of this attitude. The show environment was very inhospitable and unusual, and we could have either not played it and just left or done something confrontational and comical to make a mockery of it. Instead I just decided to put myself out there for people that (with some exceptions) seemed completely indifferent to our music and even our existence in the bar.
This is an excerpt of the journal entry I wrote about the show:
"The guys who worked at the bar moved the pool table out of the way and then we began playing. There were 3-5 people standing in the front, almost all comprised of those who had helped set up the show and one or two others. There were ~5 people sitting at the bar with their backs to us, and 2-3 others facing us while standing at the bar.
Right as we started playing our first song, a young man in his early-to-mid-twenties looked at me and laughed. Sometimes this happens at shows but this was different and much more openly hostile. He made faces at me while I stared back at him (attempting to be non-confrontational, instead trying to bring him into the mood). Then he slowly walked up to me while alternately staring me in the eyes and making facial expressions to indicate disgust with me. He then walked up close enough to touch my face while staring me in the eyes – I did the same and met his gaze. He put his big, round hat on my head and I still stared into his eyes. Eventually he turned away from me while standing very close by and started talking to someone who walked into the bar. After the song ended I said, "Hi, what's your name?" and he chuckled derisively and then said his name. I said, "Thanks for coming," and he said (again with a tone of pure ridicule), "Nah, I come here all the time" and then walked away.
This put me very close to wanting to just end the set but I only had that thought for a second before realizing that there were ~5 people in the room who were actively interested in what was going to happen next. We played the next song, during which the guy re-entered the picture by cutting in front of me and 'waltzing' to our song, derisively. This was his last appearance however.
I said something to the effect of, "It seems like this is not a good environment for the kind of music we are playing, but we're going to keep playing. Here is another sad song, with no drums." I was surprised to get a really enthusiastic reaction from 2-4 people standing right in front, who said something like, "More sad, more intimate!" which gave me the courage to realize that I was playing for the people who were listening, and participating for the sake of the people who had put in the work to make this show happen, no matter how bad it was."
This part of the tour included the longest drives (with the exception of a part of the Midwest/Prairies section). Crossing the desert was a very long, boring experience. At the best of times, I was listening to a long interview or podcast and was completely consumed by the material. At the worst of times, I felt trapped in the car and far from home.
To anyone who has never toured or worked a job that required long-distance driving, the 'road life' of these long car trips will make little sense. I'm pretty critical of chain stores in general, but on tour I develop a very distinct appreciation for them. They offer a familiar, standardized experience that is otherwise so absent from a life of constant travel. The ability to look for a Whole Foods or an IHOP or a McDonald's or a Starbucks when driving through an otherwise constantly shifting landscape is comforting and also efficient. The problem is probably the lifestyle in general – how it is dependent on burning massive amounts of fossil fuels to travel along the Interstate Highway system to interact with dispersed and diverse groups of people. I have no doubt that chain stores, suburbs, and highways all developed in a relationship of co-dependence to support a certain lifestyle and period of life in North America. Touring musicians today use these well-worn routes and along the way make use of these standardized experiences.
1 For example, in some cases we are playing only to people over 21 years of age in venues that are set up primarily for listening to guitar-based rock music while consuming alcohol. As far as I can tell, our audience consists of people of all ages, and includes a substantial number of people under 21. Therefore, a 21+ venue is not an ideal setting for our music.
As another example, the music that we have chosen to make as a band cannot be accurately characterized as 'party music' nor 'bar music.' Its function is not to get people dancing or participate in a party culture. Its relationship with alcohol is very peripheral. I have consumed alcohol at our shows and other people have done the same, but it is not integral to the experience of seeing us perform they way it may be in the case of other bands or types of music. I strongly believe that our audience does not depend on alcohol to enjoy seeing us perform. Therefore, it is not necessary that we perform in venues that are legally able to sell alcohol to patrons.
Another question that we should ask ourselves is, "Where is our audience? Where are the people that wish to participate in our music?" In an ideal world, the answer to that question would be where we tour. I understand that the process of touring and the process of building an audience are closely related, but one does not always follow from the other. The early tours of a young band often seem built on speculations of the scope and locations of their future audience, but just like any other speculative activity, the outcome is never perfect. By going through our first headlining tour, I am learning where people are interested in participating in our music and I am realizing that we should be going there. In the case of this tour, we have played a few shows that were located closely enough to major cities that people could simply have traveled to see us. We have also skipped a few places where we have had some of our best shows as a band. All of this has led me to see touring as a constant education process.