I just spent a week and a half on the road with the band Swampbird. All the new people and places were so stimulating and fun that I completely and unashamedly abandoned my attempt at keeping an online tour diary (although at one point that seemed a promising endeavor). I haven’t wanted to analyze the trip because I’ve been completely immersed in it. So instead of trying to recreate a tour diary from memory (and a sleep-deprived, partied-out memory at that), I’d like to use what I’ve learned and experienced on tour to try to answer a question that might be on your mind: Is Swampbird for real?

The band certainly has its detractors who would say “no.” I’ve talked to people who view the band solely as a group of self-aware liberal art school graduates who put on a campy southern shtick and sing about cliché country experiences they’ve never actually had. Truly, Zac Hale has never “shot [a man] for a mean look in his eye.” While singers and bands stretch the truth or write completely fictional songs all the time, I think Swampbird gets criticized because their fictions seem so far-fetched from who they are as people offstage. Yet this criticism is only valid if you think Swampbird is trying to be serious. So the question remains: Is Swampbird for real?

If you asked the band this question at their very first band-practice in the fall of 2010 at Hendrix College, they too would have said “no.” They’ve expressed to me multiple times that at first they really just used the band as an excuse to drink whiskey and party. Their very first songs (like the song “Bottle”, quoted above), were silly caricatures of the country-western style. They were just having fun playing music, cracking each other up, and performing at house parties. The problem is, when you try to write a caricature of a country-western song, you end up sounding a lot like a country-western song. The other problem is, the Swampbird boys are actually talented musicians and thoughtful songwriters. Thus, even though they were not exactly “serious” about the band, they consistently entertained both themselves and their audiences with their performances and Swampbird gained enough momentum to continue past the band members’ college life.

Flash forward to 2015 and Swampbird is still having fun playing music and cracking each other up, but they have clearly upped the ante. They still perform the freewheeling Hendrix-era classics like “Bottle” and “1,2,3,” but now accompany them with poignant and nuanced autobiographical numbers like “Ally’s Song” and “Brussels.” As the songs have matured, so have the venues. Though I’m positive they’d still enjoy rocking a house party, Swampbird now performs on major stages both in Arkansas and around the country. They’ve even filmed multiple professional music videos, one of which (Matter of Time) has over 10,000 Youtube views. Swampbird has left the swamp.

Despite all of this, I admit that I too wondered if these guys were actually serious about music, or merely using it as a fun drinking game. Regardless, I agreed to go on tour with them because I wanted to see some exciting new places, because I knew I would enjoy playing their songs, and because I like all of the band members as people. But like the beginning of all of my good relationships—playing in bands is a lot like dating by the way, but that’s for another blog post— I was just looking to have a casual good time and ended up connecting in a much deeper way. From Alabama to Maine, Swampbird showed me an amazing good time and won me over both musically and personally.

The tone of the tour was set on our drive to Birmingham. Dylan, who is currently in Canada, homeless and recording an album with Daniel Romano (aka living his dream), needed to call to cancel his electricity at his former apartment. Discovering he had a refund check in store from his initial deposit, he asked Zac if he could have it sent to his house and then asked the customer service operator if he could put it in the care of his friend. All parties agreed. When she asked Dylan for the name of his friend he had a moment of inspiration: “yes it’s first name Za, that’s Z, A.” spoken calmly “and last name Kale, like the leaf.” Forever after on tour Zac Hale was referred to as Za Kale, most often in a Jamaican accent. From “Wawawawawawawawa,” to “praise him” to “can you feel it” to “take me home tonight,” the inside jokes amassed on tour and the laughs came easy. Our second to last show was at a brewery in Portland, Maine on a beautiful sunny, temperate afternoon. The combination of an emotional tour, sleep deprivation, chemical enhancement, and cowboy music had us compulsively laughing onstage both between and during songs— it was great.

Indeed I’ve learned that the best way to approach Swampbird is with a touch of humor— they do. Honestly I laugh every time I hear the opening line to their song Gasoline: “Momma I quit talkin’ to Jesus, but I’m too ashamed to let you know, I put my faith in this goddamn rodeo.” From talking to him I understand that this is actually pointing to a real sorrowful feeling and experience in Dylan’s life, but this line is delivered in such an over the top classic-country way, that it is always funny to me. Swampbird intentionally exists in this grey area between humor and heartbreak and I think this is a brilliant element of the band— you can choose to either laugh or cry within the same song. This is nothing new; from it’s earliest incarnations, country music has always walked this line. Just ask Hank Williams. Yet Swampbird’s playful and sometimes irreverent attitude is perhaps what rubs some listeners the wrong way and leads them to question the band’s sincerity. I believe that they are simply following in the footsteps of innumerable self-aware country artists who weave between irony, obscenity, and honesty (e.g. Kris Kristopherson, David Allan Coe, Drive-by Truckers, etc.).

Not everyone will appreciate Swampbird’s lyrics— this is fine (I’ve written before that it is better to be loved by some and hated by others than kinda-sorta liked by all). Yet if you listen to more than the words, you’ll notice that Swampbird does some very interesting things with the musical elements of their songs. None of the band-members are classically trained, but they use what they know about music in very clever ways. Going from loud to soft (and vice-versa) is something that everyone innately understands and responds to, yet many young bands totally disregard this effect and very few bands I know utilize dynamic volume as well as Swampbird. Furthermore, most bands overall play far too loud and drown themselves out— Swampbird doesn’t necessarily play soft, but stays low enough for every part to be heard coherently. Harmonically the band isn’t reinventing the wheel, but they are not writing the same I-IV-V chord songs that everyone and their mom has already written. They often use familiar chords and progressions, making their songs easy to listen to and understand, but vary them enough to keep both the audience and the musicians entertained. I’d like to pull out my music major/gigging guitarist credibility card and tell you to trust me when I say that Swampbird writes musically rich songs. They also build in moments of improvisation into most songs so that live performances are not merely cookie cutter renditions of their album recordings, but spontaneous and unique moments. I took full advantage of this fact and flexed my improv muscle at every gig we played on tour (Zac and Dylan delightfully laughed at me for never playing the same thing twice). I had so much fun playing these songs.

In addition to their song structures, Swampbird also handles the logistics of band management with great organization and planning. Dylan did a wonderful job of booking this tour, asking other bands and artists about each venue, and making sure travel lengths and lodging plans were all feasible. Additionally Zac operated as band treasurer during the tour, keeping tight records of all of our income and expenses (he also did a wonderful job calling and researching rental cars for the ride home). Pete Campos operated as band manager/free-safety, taking care of our payments, selling merchandise, driving the van, and selflessly letting us have the best sleeping spots wherever we stayed. Paul and I pretty much just played drums and guitar. Additionally when faced with difficulties, the band was never too flustered, but handled it with reason and direct solutions. In Boston, we stayed at the house of Dylan and Zac’s larger than life college buddy Conner (affectionately known as “Corn-dog”). We all stayed up far too late drinking and telling stories, and in the morning Dylan and Conner were abruptly awoken by Conner’s roommate: “Conner! You gotta go to work, you’re late! … Oh, dude, your van’s getting towed.” Dylan ran outside just in time to see the van getting pulled away. Dylan went back inside, slept another hour, found the place it was impounded, walked all the way there, paid for the van, and returned to pick us up.Naturally he was a bit surly about the whole ordeal, but simply solved the problem without even waking us up.

Yet the true measure of a band’s viability is not in its organization, songwriting, or attitude, but in the way it relates to people. Fans are a band’s life-blood. From my very first Swampbird show, July 27 at The Whitewater Tavern in which dozens of people were singing along to the swamp songs, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well people respond to this band live. Excluding Knoxville (Knoxville was a bummer except for all the money and pizza the venue gave us— thanks Barley’s), we either played to current fans or won new fans everywhere we went. Our last performance of the tour was an impromptu outdoor show literally on the sidewalk of downtown Portland, Maine in the middle of the afternoon. We had a few friends come listen and Paul had some family there supporting him, yet the majority of the audience members were simply passersby who decided to stick around. No one is going to get rich playing on the side of the road, yet the street is the oldest stage in the world, and perhaps the truest test of your appeal as an artist. There was no reason for anyone to stay and hear us play— if anything there was reason for them not to stay, assuming they were on their way to some other location— yet we won them over merely by merit of our sound (well, perhaps our look as well, but whatever it takes).

So, is Swampbird for real? Undoubtedly, yes. They are playing major shows, going on national tours, recording and selling albums, filming widely seen music videos, getting great press, and writing good music. Yet this doesn’t mean that they take it all too seriously. They still like to laugh, party, and hangout and during live performances you can tell that they are enjoying themselves. Personally, I find their attitude refreshing. Too many artists are completely humorless about their art. Certainly art can approach any subject, and certain tragic topics deserve to be handled solemnly, yet ultimately the act of creating art is obscure, ineffable, and useless. I appreciate Swampbird for having fun with it.


Big thanks to Nick, Morgan, Conner, Tim, and the Mallet Brothers Band for giving us places to stay and showing us the time of our life!


Last month Trent Whitehead, lead guitarist of the rambunctious alt-country outfit Swampbird, abruptly sent me a facebook message asking if I wanted to fill in for him on Swampbird’s East Coast tour (Trent couldn’t get away from work for the necessary two weeks). Though I had never played with the band before, I knew from previously seeing their energetic shows and meeting all the band-mates that it would be a fun time. I said yes. After confirming it with me, Trent asked his bandmates Dylan Vernon (guitar, vocals), Zac Hale (bass, vocals), and Paul Fennig (drums) if it would be ok if I substituted for him. They said yes.

There is a symbiotic relationship between myself and the band. I play lead guitar, filling out their sound, and they take me around the country, letting me continue to live out my dream of traveling and playing music (if you ask me I think I’m getting the better end of this deal). I certainly hope Swampbird continues to grow and have great success, and I hope I can contribute to that success while I’m on tour with them, but because I’m not actually in the band, I also have a close eye on how this tour is benefiting me personally and musically. Namely, I am getting to witness and sample other music scenes around nation (I may want to move to one of these places someday) and practice playing a country-rock guitar style that I don’t often get to perform. I am thankful and humbled that they’ve agreed to bring me along and am looking forward to the wonderful highs and lows of life on the road.

Though late nights and ample adult beverages will surely threaten my productivity, I aim to keep a consistent tour diary as we travel to some really cool places:

7/31— Birmingham, AL | Secret Stages Festival

8/1 — Knoxville, TN | Barley’s

8/2 — Asheville, NC | Jack of the Wood

8/4 — Washington, DC | Hill Country

8/5 — Brooklyn, NY | Bar Matchless

8/6 — Cambridge, MA | Middle East

8/8 — Portsmouth, NH | The Press Room

Friday July 31st, 2015. Day one.

We met at 10:00am to pack up the tour van at Dylan’s downtown Little Rock apartment. There I met the fifth Swampbird Pete Campos, a self-described “cog in the machine” for Sticky’z and Rev Room in Little Rock. He’ll be handling the driving, merchandise-dealing, and kitten herding for the duration of the tour. We were on the road to Birmingham by 11am. The spirits were high, and the jokes were base. I was happy to be on the road again.

Our soundtrack for the first leg of the journey was Canada based singer/songwriter Daniel Romano. Romano’s songs are all about heartache and call to mind singers like Faron Young and Merle Haggard. Though he has an absolutely classic-country sound, Romano feels that most of the artists we refer to as “country” today have strayed from the genre’s roots. Thus Romano has coined a new term to describe his genre: Mosey. It’s great driving music.

Dylan was already a huge fan when he heard that Daniel Romano was playing a show at J.R.’s and needed an opener— he quickly assembled a band to play the show, mainly so he could hear and meet his idol. Months later, Dylan was looking at Romano’s tour schedule and noticed a two day gap between his shows in Shreveport and Nashville. He contacted Romano’s manager Kay Berkell and asked if they wanted to do a show in Little Rock with Swampbird. She exclaimed that they had in fact been trying to book a show in Little Rock and would love to. More meetings and correspondence followed and culminated in Kay asking Dylan if he wanted to record an album of his own originals with Daniel at his Ontario studio. After Dylan checked multiple times to see if she was actually serious and not just being nice, she insisted that she was and said they would be free to start it August 9th, the day after Swampbird’s last show of the tour in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Thus, after we wrap up the tour, Pete, Paul, Zac, and I will rent a car and travel home to Arkansas and Dylan will drive the van to Ridgeville, Ontario to cut an album with his musical hero.

I am naturally the outsider in Swampbird (having spent only a handful of days around them), so I enjoy getting stories on the background and futures of my momentary bandmates. Although the band currently resides in Little Rock, it turns out that all of the members are transplants. Dylan is originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana but moved to Arkansas in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. He finished up high school at Subiaco Academy and then attended Hendrix for college. Zac grew up in Huntsville, AL and chose Hendrix because it gave him a nice scholarship. Dylan, Zac, and Trent met at Hendrix and quickly began to hangout and play music with each other. Though, the band was at first just “an excuse to drink whiskey on weekdays,” by the end of college it was a musically viable entity and they decided to pursue it in Little Rock. Paul is originally from Des Arc, AR but moved to Little Rock in 2003 after finishing college at Lyon in Batesville. He had been in numerous Little Rock bands such as Frown Pow’r, The Modedz, Tsar Bomba, The Yips, and Life Size Pizza by the time The Swampbird dudes were in need of a new drummer. He joined them in 2012 and his first gig with the band was at Riverfest that same year.

We rolled into Birmingham around 6pm, set to play at a German restaurant and bar called Das Haus as part of the Secret Stages festival. We met a kindly artist and festival worker named Soso who clued us in to the location of the Secret Stages VIP room where we could have our fill of food and drinks. After satiating ourselves with delicious Tacos and local beer, we loaded in our equipment and prepared to play the first show of tour (and my first real show with the band). I comforted myself by using a cheat sheet taped to the back of my guitar to remind me of all the songs, chords, and keys. We played well, and the crowd was extremely supportive. Our 45 minute set blew by in no time because we were having so much fun.

In fact, the fun continued until well after our set. Still riding the high of the performance, we bounced between the VIP room and the various stages to check out the other bands. Secret Stages is not an outdoor festival— it exists within about a square mile area of downtown, and all the shows are at actual music venues in the area (Parthenon, Rogue Tavern, Pale Eddie’s, M-Lounge, Lobotomix, Easy Street, Das Haus). Quality control at the festival was extremely high— I didn’t see a single band I didn’t enjoy, and a couple of them truly blew me away. A band called Twin Limb performed immediately after us at Das Haus and had a lot going for them: 1. The Look— the band consisted of two pretty girls and dude who looked like a caveman from the future. They arranged themselves on stage with the girls sitting facing each other at the front of the stage and the dude standing in the back, forming a radical triangle. 2. The Instrumentation — The girls played drums and accordion and both sang, while the future-man in the back played guitar and electronic-sample sounds. 3. The Sound — despite being just a three-piece the sound was large and rapturous with beautiful vocal melodies ringing out over big beats and heavily effected guitar and accordion.

After the Twin Limb show, Lacy, the accordion player/singer in the band, recommended we check out their friend’s band called Landlady. Pete confirmed that Landlady was definitely a worthwhile show, but before we could do that, we needed a refill at the VIP station. Two hilarious things happened there. First, Paul discovered an unwrapped (yet hopefully unused) condom in the diet coke cooler and very politely informed one of the festival volunteers of the situation. Second, Dylan, while chatting up a local PYT, knocked over a large precariously built display of all the Secret Stages bands arranged like the periodic table with the brim of his cowboy hat. It seemed an accident waiting to happen, but he profusely apologized to the staff to prove he wasn’t a complete drunk idiot.

After the VIP room shenanigans, Dylan and Zac went to see an interactive psychedelic band called Space Face while Pete, Paul, and I went to check out Landlady. I really can’t remember the last time I was so swept away by a musical performance. The lead singer/keyboard player was a short guy, with a huge voice who bore a striking resemblance to Rod Serling. He was supported by a bass player, guitarist, and two drummers who traded turns playing drums and auxiliary percussion— all were extremely proficient on their instruments and provided backup vocals as well. The songs shifted seamlessly between composed, precisely executed sections and free-for all percussive freakouts. Many bands are talented but not very original. Many other bands are original but not very talented. Landlady was both— the songs were intricate, difficult, and unique, and they executed them flawlessly. I recommend them.

After the shows we reluctantly regrouped at the van and drove to Zac’s high school friend Nick’s house to crash. Exhausted, I laid my sleeping bag on the floor and passed out, while Dylan, Zac, and Nick talked, drank, and reminisced into the wee hours.

Saturday August 1st, 2015. Day Two.

We woke around 11am, still groggy from the night before, but the promise of free lunch got us on our feet and moving. Another of Zac’s childhood friends named Rachel invited us over to her house for BLT’s and delicious homemade cookies. She and her husband are sponsors of Secret Stages and enjoyed hosting bands as they travelled through. It was a big happy lunch with two bands and family members all eating and talking. We filled up to our heart’s content and then hit the road to Knoxville.

On the road we entertained ourselves by sharing shameful and hilarious high-school stories. These I can’t print, but suffice it to say that Zac Hale was a rockstar long before he was in Swampbird and I know the whole band a lot better now.

We pulled in to Knoxville with plenty of time to load in our equipment, explore a music shop next door, and kick a soccer ball around before showtime. We played at a pizza restaurant & bar called Barley’s, and unfortunately the people seemed more into the pizza and beer than our music. It was a nearly polar opposite crowd reaction than the previous night in Birmingham. We chugged along through our set, but it was difficult to not feel deflated by the crowd’s apathy. We regrouped after our first set and agreed that we should just be playing for each other and not for the indifferent crowd. We started off our second set of music with some of Dylan’s solo material that he’ll be recording later this month. I sat in with him, filling in the spaces between his words with little melodies and chords, and all of a sudden we began to have fun playing. Paul then joined us on stage, providing a nice back-beat for the songs, and by the time Zac got up there I think we felt like a whole new band. Our second set was very strong even though the crowd never really came around. We comforted ourselves with the thought of the nice guarantee we were promised by the venue and the five pizzas they cooked us (eat your heart out Maxine’s).

After the show we drove through a surprisingly active downtown night-life scene on our way to our Marriott Hotel. Pete has the hookup on the Marriott’s family rate, so we can sleep for relatively cheap in relative comfort (five dudes in one hotel room is neither the best nor worst) once in a while on tour.

Sunday August 2nd, 2015. Day Three

I woke up early and snuck out the room to go work out and swim at the hotel’s outdoor pool area. After two days of long cramped van rides, shows, and beer drinking, my body was feeling a bit stagnant, so it felt great to run around, swim, workout, and stretch. I returned to the room as everyone was waking up and we ate cold leftover pizza for breakfast as we packed up our bags.

The drive to Asheville was short and beautiful. Though I have toured like this before, I forgot that one of the most amazing parts of the experience is watching a new city or landscape roll into view— I was reminded of this wonderful feeling as we approached the Appalachian mountains. As we drove through the hills, I texted the one person I know who lives in Asheville. Simon George is an incredible keyboard player and full-time musician living in Asheville and the brother of my good buddy and Oxford American editor Max George. I met Simon last year when he was visiting Max in Little Rock and we had a brief but entertaining jam together on acoustic guitar and Casio keyboard.

I told Simon I’d be in Asheville within the hour and he invited me to come to Burial Beer Co. where Simon’s jazz-fusion trio was playing until 4pm. I suggested it to the Swampbirds, and they all agreed. I greeted Simon and he invited me to join the band for a song on the condition that I play him a solo classical guitar piece first. So I took the stage after their set break and serenaded the beer drinkers with some Carcassi etudes played on a Telecaster guitar. Next Simon and his drummer joined me and we played a jazz-funk tune called Red Baron. It felt musically nourishing to get to dip into my jazz style for a moment during this country-rock tourgasm. I do love to play with Swampbird, yet I’ve incorporated a lot of different style into my musical life (Classical, Jazz, Funk, Soul, Hip-Hop, Country, Rock, R&B) and I am left wanting if I am away from any one style for too long. I reluctantly passed the guitar back to its owner. After they finished the set we bid Simon and his mates a fond farewell and they gave us a tip about a good spot to swim in the nearby French Broad river.

Pete and Paul then went to guitar center to buy some drum gear, while Dylan, Zac, and I went for a refreshing swim. We checked in to the Springhill Suites hotel (another chain in the Marriott family where we get the good discount), and were pleasantly surprised by a large room with two full-sized beds and a massive fold out couch. I took a quick soak in the hot tub (it was a rather leisurely day), and then showered and got ready for the show.

We played at a charming little spot in downtown Asheville called Jack of the Wood. Though we were again playing at a bar/restaurant, the Asheville experience was completely different from the dead night in Knoxville. For one, Dylan and Zac had some friends come and show a lot of vocal support throughout the whole show which was very energizing. Yet many of the people who had never even heard us before payed close attention and enjoyed the show. Despite playing only for tips, we ended up making plenty of money to get us to our next stop of Washington DC. Even more satisfying was the fact that many of the audience members came up and paid us compliments. I had heard a lot of good things from artists and musicians about Asheville before visiting, and based on my brief experience it does seem to be a wonderfully supportive community for anyone pursing art. I think I’ll be back.

After the show we drove back to the hotel where we took full advantage of the fact that we did not have a show the next day. We stayed up into the wee hours talking, drinking, joking, and sending out world-class snap-chats. Some things shouldn’t be written about here, and those are the things you should ask us about in person.

By the way, if you want to follow all of the action during our tour, the best way to do that is to add us on Snapchat (if you don’t have it, get it) at SwampbirdTV. The snaps are golden.

Saturday, February 21:

With the end of our journey in sight, Piph, Paul, and I sat at breakfast and marveled at the many wonderful sights, sounds, and learning opportunities that this trip has offered us. For instance, our previous day in the village of Rebola, with it’s small makeshift houses, joyous children, and moving funeral march, had highlighted both what we’ve taken for granted in America (i.e. clean running water, air-conditioning, internet, transportation, education etc.) and what we dislike about America (i.e. isolation and lack of community). We all agreed that this trip had put things in perspective and made us see that there was little to complain about back home. Piph, the most experienced traveler of the group, explained that after similar musical expeditions to other countries, he realized that he did not want to associate with consistently negative people. Later at lunch, Corey echoed this sentiment by expressing that he did not want to simply return to the complacent doldrums that sometimes pervades the Little Rock music scene. We’ve seen people on this trip who are accomplishing so much more, with so much less money and resources than many of us back home. Indeed, talking to each band-member, I’ve realized that we’ve all experienced this trip as a reminder of how much more we believe we can do with our lives and our music. None of us feel that it is time to rest and pat ourselves on the back, but rather it is time to be even more proactive: to write, to record, to practice, to go back to school, to learn a new language, to volunteer, to fight against injustice and to become who we truly want to be.

In the afternoon, we drove to the French Cultural center to rehearse with some local rappers for the evening’s show. Though they had never heard our music before, five different MC’s were easily able to do rap verses over our songs. This and other rehearsals during this trip have served as evidence of how universal Hip-Hop has become. We haven’t had to teach anyone how to rap, perform, or represent Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop has been spreading around the world on its own for years now. From what I’ve seen, the tiny, obscure country of Equatorial Guinea, brimming with talented rappers and dancers, is a perfect example of this trend.

In the evening we enjoyed a delicious meal on the relaxing patio of the French Cultural Center —I had steak with creamy mushroom sauce, fried plantains, and San Miguel beer (a ubiquitous Spanish beer in Equatorial Guinea that I grew to love). After dinner, we shuffled in to the center’s concert hall and watched the main event of the evening: a two-on-two breakdance battle tournament! Dancers taunted each other with acrobatic flips, popping-and-locking, and incredible feats of strength and balance all to the beat of the DJ’s tracks. I tried to work on this tour diary from the balcony, but realized I couldn’t turn my eyes away from the amazing display of coordination, skill, and energy on the stage. Before the tournament’s winning team was announced, we took the stage to perform a short set. We heavily featured the local rappers we had rehearsed with earlier and the crowd (already worked up from the amazing dancing) was loud and supportive.

After the show and a brief rest at the hotel, we went out with Micheal and Piedad to partake of the local nightlife (wich Piedad explained is most enjoyed by people in Malabo between the hours of 1 and 7am). We went to a brightly lit bar, eccentrically decorated with roman pillars, paintings of Buddha/beautiful west African women, and all topped off with a green laser-light dancing on the ceiling. There we sampled local palm-wine, danced with Piedad, her sister, and their friends, and stayed out until our 3am curfew (imposed by our Embassy driver).

Sunday, February 22:

Today we luckily had plenty of time to sleep off the previous night’s party. Our first event was to meet with an Equatorial Guinean street-workout group called Barbarrio at 3pm (or 15 o’clock as I like to call it). We heard from five members of the group as well as the program’s organizer named Sese (pronounced “sesay”). We sat poolside at the hotel as Sese explained that Barbarrio’s purpose is much greater than providing fitness for young people— it is about acquiring skills like teamwork, communication, English, and discipline which will be useful for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, she explained that they execute their training within a Hip-Hop context— using minimal workout equipment and taking turns to improvise and perform rhythmic workouts to the beat of Hip-Hop songs. When we heard from the five teenage members of Barbarrio (speaking in their best English), the most common sentiments being expressed were that “Barbarrio is like a family,” and that “it is good to work out alone and be in shape, but it is much better when you do it with a group.” I responded by repeating the same ideas about music and our band: “of course it is good to play and practice alone, but it is best when you can make music with others,” and that indeed “over the course of this trip this band has become like a family.” After our discussion, they gave us an impressive demonstration of a typical workout which incorporated difficult pushup and parallel bar routines using our song “Untouchable” as the soundtrack. Next they encouraged us to get in on the workout and showed us different dips and core workouts that we tried out. At one point after a vigorous (and self-centered) workout synced up to my own guitar solo, I decided it was necessary that I jump in the pool with my jean shorts on (much to the chagrin of Michael, who was ready to escort us off to the next event). I went upstairs to change clothes so I missed Piph nearly completing a difficult 180 degree turn on the parallel bar (however, there is video of the attempt if anyone is extra interested).

We all got changed and went to have drinks and hors d’oeuvres with the kind Ambassadorial couple Mark and Jane Asquino, who hosted us at their large, modern home inside the US embassy. There we learned about their travels to central Asia, and talked to them about our musical and personal lives. They showed us pottery, clothes, and art they had collected around the world and we humorously attempted to play some of the African string and percussion instruments they displayed. The food was delicious, the drinks were generously poured, and the conversation was delightful. At one point, Paul exclaimed out of the blue something like “this is incredible, wow.” After we all exchanged warm goodbyes and gratitude, Paul explained outside that he became overwhelmed by the realization that his life could have been very different, but that certain choices (going away from home for college, devoting himself to drums, staying in Arkansas, etc.) had lead him to this wonderful moment we were all having together.

We returned to the hotel room for a poolside jam session at sunset with local Equatorial Guinean musicians. We began with a funky Afro-beat jam lead by local legend Alex Ikot on drumset and a talented young guitarist named Elvis-Bob. Another great hand-percussion player named Gafar played along while Corey and I listened and adapted our playing to the novel but infectious rhythms. Next an incredible young singer named Nelida Karr, who also happened to be married to Elvis, joined us on a West Africa infused rendition of Gershwin’s classic “Summertime.” Alex then summoned up the bass player for his band and we in tomorrow maybe took a refreshing moment to be the audience members for a stellar ensemble of musicians. Everyone played masterfully, joyfully, and tastefully as the band supported one of the best voices I have ever heard in person— Nelida sang with such precise control over her gorgeous full voice that it was difficult to believe that she is only 25! If you don’t believe me (and yes I have been accused of hyperbole from within the band), I have audio evidence of just how amazing this group was. After a few songs, we joined them again for a Hip-Hop jam with Nelida singing an improvised chorus between Piph’s freestyle rap verses. Unfortunately it began to rain so we had to pack up early, but I retired to my room with the rhythms and melodies of the evening still singing in my head.

Monday, February 23:

Our first order of business today was to check out the equipment we would be using for wednesday’s show at the Malabo Spanish Cultural Center. Similar to nearly every stop on our voyage, the equipment at the center was not quite up to the same standard as what we’re used to back home, yet by this time we were veterans of making due with what we’re given. Like many times before, Corey looked at his bass amp, surveyed the rest of the equipment, and uttered a resigned but confident “we’ll make it work.”

After our equipment check, we drove over to a vocational school in Maloba where we sat down for a talk with a large audience of young adults, all wearing lab coats (blue for students, and white for teachers). The enthusiastic crowd encouraged us with loud applause for seemingly every introduction and answer we gave. At one point we asked the audience if anyone knew what Hip-Hop is. Five or six students approached the front to give the answers, most of them replying something similar to “it is a way to express yourself and talk about the experience of being on the street,” yet everyone was especially impressed when one of the students confidently stated the four elements of Hip-Hop which Piph had been describing since day one of this trip: “Rap, DJ, Graffiti, and B-Boy.” We then invited some of the students to the front to showcase their own rap skill, and about six students took turns rapping while Paul made a beat on the table with his hands. Their was an interesting variety in both flow, demeanor, and lyrical content— we learned later from Michael (who understood the Spanish), that one young man was very positive and had thanked us for being here in his rap, whereas another took the opportunity to disparage and attack white people (and I clapped for that guy!). We finished the session with Piph rapping his own verse and a massive group picture with the students. We then got a chance to take a hard-hat tour of the facility where we saw students learning skills like metal-working, electronic engineering, wood carving, and cooking in preparation for good jobs that could support them for the rest of their lives. In a country marked by a huge disparity in wealth between the super elite and the poor, this school seemed to be a very good and potent drop in the bucket.

Next we packed up and departed for the airport in order to fly to the city of Bata on the mainland. We flew with the Equatorial Guinean airline Cieba Air, who conducted their airplane safety demonstration in Spanish and French. I’ve heard it all before so it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand the words, but I realized that this was the first flight that I’ve ever been on that had no English language demonstration. This was a minor detail, but a major reminder of just how far away from home we were.

We were on the ground in Bata a mere thirty minutes after takeoff, and then checked in to the seaside Hotel Ibis. For dinner we went to the restaurant at the Bata Spanish Cultural Center where we would be performing the following night (Spain is still a major diplomatic influence in E.G. and has some of the finest facilities for cultural programming on both the island and the mainland). There we met with four foreigners who had been living and working in Bata— three of them were Spaniards working at the cultural center, and one was a young American consultant named Elsa who grew up in Mexico, but spent her senior year of high school in Dewitt Arkansas of all places! After expressing the appropriate level of amazement at this coincidence, I enjoyed getting to know her more and talking to her friend Quico, the Spanish Consul in Bata, over a delicious dinner of locally caught fish.

Tuesday, February 24:

Today Piph, Corey, and I conducted our morning workout outside on the wide walkway next to the Atlantic ocean. The oppressive heat and humidity of the tropical country made for perhaps our most intense and difficult workout yet— it took me an hour to stop sweating.

We met up again with Elsa for lunch at a Lebanese restaurant in town, and let her order us a large family style meal of hummus, baba ganoush, beef, chicken, salad, olives, bread, and a San Miguel beer for me. As we were waiting for our food Elsa described the excessively relaxed attitude of Equatorial Guinean waiters— “Once I ordered pizza at a restaurant and they then waited an hour before telling me they didn’t have pizza, and sometimes you’ll order one thing and they’ll just bring you something different.” Sure enough, right on cue the waiter brought me Heineken. Oh well, que sera, sera. The food was plentiful and delicious, and the restaurant owner insisted on treating us to some complimentary papaya and pineapple for dessert (E.G. has the best pineapple), which I washed down with a potent cup of Lebanese coffee.

We then went to a walled in orphanage which contained it’s own school and residence halls— if the children are not adopted at a young age, they are allowed to live and go to school here all the way up to high-school. The large campus was contained by tall stone walls, and on the inside

we saw playgrounds and many buildings which were pointed out to us as classrooms, residence halls, an auditorium, and more— though everything was a bit rundown, Elsa assured us that this was a nice facility for Bata. We met with some administrators of the school there, and although the principal seemed actually a little confused at our presence and definitely disappointed that we were not dancers, he quickly assembled a group of about 80 high-school age students for us to talk to and interact with underneath the shade of a large outdoor covering. We sat down in front of them, with Elsa and Pieadad strategically placed amongst us to do the translating. We introduced ourselves, gave the background of our band and Hip-Hop (expertly translated by Elsa), and then began to ask and field questions. Although shy at first, they told us which American Hip-Hop artists they liked (Eminem, Lil Wayne, Tupac), repeated back the four elements of Hip-Hop, and by the end of the talk some of them had sufficiently loosened up enough to try their hand at freestyle rapping— the crowd favorite was a teenager who didn’t really rap or freestyle, he just repeated the phrase “chopina, chopina, chopina!” to which the crowd shouted back “chopin!” (this was both hilarious and awesome). Next, at the request of the students, Piph rapped a verse to his song “Untouchable” while Paul held his phone speaker up to a megaphone and played the instrumental track out loud. The crowd of students erupted and we were all consumed by swarms of picture takers and and autograph seekers (I apologize to the girls whose shirts we signed— I know that seemed like a good idea at the time). Even Michael, Pieded, and Elsa were asked for pictures and autographs (which they of course obliged).

After numerous unsuccessful attempts to make it back to the car un-photographed, we finally rounded up everyone and drove off to do some brief souvenir shopping. We found a street-side trinket dealer and Elsa helped us all haggle and procure bracelets, carved wooden animals, necklaces, coasters, and bowls. Piph and I also dipped into the grocery store across the street and purchased some Cuban Rum and Italian Wine.

After the shopping spree we drove to the Spanish Cultural Center to check out the equipment and rehearse with local rappers. We’d gotten very good at this routine by now, so it didn’t take us long to conduct the soundcheck and work the two Batan rappers into our act. We booked it back to the hotel in the bullet-proof Ambassadorial SUV that had been our conveyance around Bata, rested, refreshed, and prepared for the nights show. We arrived thirty minutes before showtime and were met with a massive empty room— not a single audience member. We set up and then waited backstage, anticipating a sorry show. Yet, the day was saved when a group of about thirty teenage girls (students from the school we visited earlier), showed up and filled the seats— soon after even more people showed up so that by showtime, we stood before a very decent audience. We had planned on playing a slightly shorter set, but the crowd was so into it that we ended up playing all of our songs. Elsa took the stage in her rock-star attire and helped us conduct the crowd-participation portions of the show, teaching the audience to sing our song “Feel Alright,” telling them to shout “hey!” along to the chorus of “Something to Tell Ya,” and inviting any dancers to the stage for the song “Chills.” The latter made for the highlight of the show: about a dozen young audience members on stage dancing along as we watched and played— Elsa even stayed on stage with us to bust a few moves (“I see you Elsa!”).

Feeling hot and high after the fun show, we were met with a shocking surprise when we found out that someone had tried to break into the Ambassador’s SUV during the show. This was a lousy attempt at criminality on a couple levels: for one, our driver Diosdado was standing right there watching the whole thing unfold; for two, the would-be robber tried to break bullet-proof glass with a crowbar (poor guy barely scratched the surface). We didn’t want to wait for the police to show up, so we went to Quico’s nearby apartment, dropped our equipment off, and walked on to the (possibly) famous “Freedom Tower” for dinner in a revolving Italian restaurant (which we requested they stop revolving because it was making us sick).

Despite being the only customers in the restaurant, the service was textbook Equatorial Guinean (slow and inconsistent) and the long wait time afforded me more opportunity to get to know Elsa. She described the culture shock of arriving in Dewitt, Arkansas for her senior year of high school, where at 18 years old she suddenly lost the privileges of drinking and going clubbing and gained an overly-protective host-mother and a school ripe with racial tension. Despite encountering a slew of real life negative Arkansan stereotypes, she did manage to make friends there and even visited Hot Springs last year to be a bridesmaid in one of her Dewitt best friends weddings— it was at this wedding that Elsa met our one mutual friend/acquaintance: Claire Nichols (shout out to you).

When our food finally came, I was proud to be part of the only group of Americans eating dinner at an Equatorial Guinean revolving Italian restaurant. After dinner we continued our unique journey by being the only people to hang out in the club downstairs— the bartender roped us into staying with some free tequila shots. We busted some brief moves on the empty dance floor, which was surrounded by mirrors on the walls; Elsa explained that this was because in many central African clubs women will dance facing the mirror, watching and waiting for acceptable dance partners to approach them. We all drank another drink and continued to discuss the peculiarities of life in Equatorial Guinea until it was time to depart for some much needed sleep. This will not be news to my bandmates, but I admit to being reluctant to part with Elsa.

Wednesday, February 25:

Today we flew back to the island of Malabo for our final show of the tour. Did I admit to being reluctant to part with Elsa? I have met some very impressive and inspiring people on this journey and she is certainly near the top of them. She is a consultant working on development in Equatorial Guinea, much needed because the country’s massive oil wealth sits in the hands of the elite minority, leaving over 70% of the citizens to live on $2 a day. Despite it being an underdeveloped country lacking in western comforts like running water, electricity, air-conditioning, and internet, whose citizens can be cold and distrusting of foreigners, Elsa chose to go to E.G. because her work is needed there and she believes her work could actually make a positive difference in people’s lives. She lives and works in a harsh reality, yet amazingly maintains an extremely upbeat demeanor— when I asked her how she manages to be so happy in such difficult circumstances, she said one of the most beautiful sentiments I’ve heard during the trip: “I just make my own sunshine.” Time and time again on this trip have I been humbled to meet people either with less wealth or heavier burdens (often both) than I, who nonetheless have truly learned the art of happiness and continue to live and work hard.

After landing back in Malabo, we had nearly a full day to rest and recover before our show. I took the opportunity to sit by the pool and work on this tour diary, punctuating my paragraphs with dives into the water; I stayed there long enough to work up a nice sunburn.

Around 6:00pm we again arrived at the Spanish Cultural Center and conducted a brief set up and sound-check. Corey, Paul, and I then went and had cake and coffee at the restaurant, and enjoyed watching a Barbarrio street-workout unfold before our eyes— this time there were about 25 Babarrio boys and girls (I was happy to see that the group is co-ed) taking turns doing various incarnations of pushups, pull-ups, and dips. Backstage we grouped together and prepared for our final show in Africa. Everyone was loose and ready to put on a great show, continuing a running joke which began at our first show in the Equatorial Guinean heat that we were all going to perform shirtless. Babarrio opened up the show with a ten-minute workout routine set to music; after each person completed a difficult set of maneuvers Nelson, the strong 17 year old leader of Barbarrio, would shout “Uno, Dos, Tres!” and the rest would answer “Barbarrio!” When they completed their whole demonstration he again shouted “Uno, Dos, Tres!” but this time Nelson’s countdown was met with “Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe!”

We played a loud energetic show to a nearly packed house, relishing playing a show we had perfected over the course of the month. Multiple times I looked around at my bandmates to see them either dancing, smiling, or both. Gone was any self-consciousness attempt to be more or less Hollywood than the other— we were all in this together, and we played one of our best shows of the tour. When it came time for our boisterous closer “Untouchable,” I saw Dre and Piph really considering taking off their sweat drenched shirts. I’ve been of the “give me an inch and I’ll take a mile” mentality for much of this trip, so I went ahead and stripped my shirt off right there in front of the foreign audience (which the Ambassador was sitting in no less), and before I even had time to turn around, Dre had followed suit… then Piph… then Paul. Corey just sunk his head— “are these guys really doing this!?” I read clearly on his face. Halfway through the first verse and Corey had (halfway) followed suit, lifting his shirt above his head, and by the second verse he had reluctantly completed his unveiling. There we were, Big Piph and Tomorrow Maybe, valiant, sweaty, shirtless, American. At the end of the song, encouraged by the rest of the band, I stretched my unaccompanied closing solo well past the limit of tasteful length and dropped in a Star-Spangled Banner quote for good measure. For me, this was absolutely the most fun show of the tour, because after a month of playing, laughing, and working everyday together, it was the most connected we felt as a band.

We made it back to the hotel in time for one more buffet dinner at the “Teatra” restaurant that had become so familiar to us over the course of our Equatorial Guinean stay. We ate and joked around with the hotel staff who had greatly warmed up to us during our week there, and halfway through dinner we were joined by our friend and Barbarrio organizer Sese Site. She passionately pleaded with us to not simply make this a one time trip to E.G.— “what you have done here has been positive, but you need to follow up again and again. The youth here have a lot of pain and frustration below the surface, and they need help finding constructive community activities like workouts and music. You could have a huge impact here.” Piph then explained that while we would like to help, our program (AMA) sent us here as a one time occurrence, and we do not have the money to come back here on our own. Furthermore, we can only help if there are people here in Equatorial Guinea who will be proactive in any potential program and who want us to help. Yet in the end we all agreed that we would try to find a way to continue our exchange with the Equatorial Guinean youth and would absolutely look for grants and programs that would allow us to return.

After dinner, we all went to the hotel bar (Piph, Paul, Dre, Corey, Piedad, and I) to have a final celebratory drink together. Dre and I ordered beers, but we were all a little turned off by the high price of drinks at the bar, so Piph went to retrieve the Cuban rum I had bought the night before and the young bartender kindly let us use glasses from the bar to pour our own booze in. I poured us all healthy portions of rum, and we took turns contributing to a massive band toast: “here’s to the being in Africa!” … “here’s to a great experience, and many more in the future” … “here’s to having the best possible band—there are other great musicians out there, but I don’t even want to look for them”… “ditto!” … “here’s to not really knowing you guys at all before this trip, but now considering you some of my best friends” … “CHEERS!” Piph, Corey, and I went in for a sip, but saw Dre and Paul take the whole cup down, so the three of us followed suit. Despite tossing back a healthy two shots each, we were all pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the Havana Club rum (something we’ll hopefully all get to enjoy soon in America). We finished the bottle while marveling at the many amazing sights we’d seen, the wonderful people we’d met, and the amazing fact that the five us had spent 25 consecutive days together working and playing and that there had been absolutely no drama or flare ups between us. This was a special journey.


Thursday, February 26:

Today our flight back home didn’t leave until night time, so it made sense to our program organizers to have us do a couple more talks before we left. Logically I understood this, but the fact was that after a great last show and a rum-drenched late night recap of our journey, we were prepared to fly back home and start afresh in Little Rock, carrying the lessons we learned with us. It seemed like the scheduled events resonated with our tour fatigue. The first was a talk at the university in Malabo with an English class, where neither the students nor the teacher (nor us for that matter) seemed to know what we were doing there. We dragged through the conversation, took a picture, and left confused. The second event was another talk with an English class for all ages in the English quarter of town. Here they were better prepared for us and we had a pleasant talk about music and life in America, yet all of us knew that we were ready for the flight home. Finally we ate a delicious dinner of American sized portions of pizza, chicken wings, cordon bleu, burgers, and pasta at a nearby restaurant and went on to the airport. We began our return journey at 9pm Equatorial Guinean time, flew to Paris, then to Detroit, and finally arrived in Little Rock around 5pm Friday evening (central standard time). We were seven hours ahead in E.G. so you can do the math on how long this voyage actually took (I don’t want to think about it).


I think if you re-read this diary (I’m certainly not suggesting you do that), you would find that the most frequently used word was “experience.” I’ve used it as a verb, adjective, and noun countless times, and that word once again is the one that best sums up my time here: I’ve experienced three different countries, eleven different cities/towns, dozens of beautiful sights, and hundreds of impactful people; I come home with a deeper knowledge of the world— I am truly more experienced; and I can honestly say that this was the best experience of my life.

I know that if you asked the other members of the band they would affirm how meaningful this trip was. Yet what is fascinating is that while the magnitude of the trip’s effect on us was similar, the character of the trip’s effect was different for each of us: for one, it reaffirmed and energized his current path; for another, it revealed people and things he needed to let go of in order to progress; for another it showed him how fortunate he was, and made clear that he needed to hold on to someone special; for another it cut through the superficial stressors of American life and showed him that people are what is most important; and for another it showed him the true purpose of musical performance and what the future should look like.

I want to offer my sincerest gratitude to American Voices, the State Department, Marc, Bahri, JJ, Ida, Fatma, Selma, Michael, Piedad, Elsa, Sese, Epiphany, Corey, Dre, Paul, our sound engineers along the way, the many artists we worked with, and all the wonderful Moroccans, Algerians, and Equatorial Guineans that we met along the way for helping make this such an amazing journey.

Sunday, February 15:

During and before this trip we’ve been having an ongoing debate about who in the band is “the most Hollywood.” For clarification, the adjective Hollywood as we are using it is essentially the narcissistic quality of behaving like a superstar-celebrity. However, being Hollywood in no way correlates to how proficient one is at their musical craft— we are only talking about superficial and behavioral indicators (e.g. manner of dress, level of showmanship/show-off-manship, number of pictures posed for, and generally how much one enjoys adulation and attention). It is a generally accepted notion amongst us that our singers Bijoux and Dee Dee (who aren’t here to defend themselves) are the most Hollywood, and that our bass player Corey is the least hollywood. Thus, up for debate is who on this trip (from the pool of myself, Paul, Piph, and Dre) is the most Hollywood, and today, our first show day in Algeria, offered ample evidence for all of us to use in the great Hollywood debate.

Piph and I started the day with a vigorous 7:15am workout in our hotel gym. If asked, I think we would both tell you that we workout to feel good, be healthy, and be more competitive in sports, but come on, I think we each want to look good too (chalk it up to being a bit Hollywood). After the exercise we met up with the rest of the group for breakfast and we were off to rehearsal by 9:15. Our wonderful Algerian program organizers, Ida and Fatma, have done an excellent job scheduling practice/setup times into our days, so we had ample time to tighten up our songs as well as rehearse with the Algerian rappers, dancers, and high-school film students that we would be collaborating with in the evening. We then swung by a shawarma shop for sandwiches and ate them on the way back to our hotel.

After some much needed naps, we packed up the bus and departed for the show venue. On the ride there we discovered that our Algerian driver is apparently infatuated with Akon’s sugar coated dance song “Silver and Gold” — the dude played it literally four times in a row. When we arrived we met and fraternized with more rappers and dancers, bonding in the green room over our love of the free tea and pastries set before us. As the crowd filtered in for the show, a young Algerian DJ played a combination of current dance mixes and late 90’s jams —“Maria Maria,” “Too close (You’re Making it Hard for Me),” and Puff Daddy’s “I’ll be Missing You” comprised one nostalgic three song stretch. The Algerian rap duo “Africa United” and rapper “Mister Pablo” then took the stage, rapping and dancing around to their brand of synth heavy party rap (this is what it sounded like—I didn’t quite pick up on the french and arabic lyrical content). We learned later from Ida that this was the first time any of the night’s rappers and dancers had gotten to perform on this prominent stage— this center was usually reserved for traditional Algerian music. Peaking out from the backstage curtain, I was happy to see not only the biggest crowd of our tour so far (props to Fatma for an excellent promoting job), but also the liveliest— many in the large crowd were standing up dancing and screaming for their hometown heroes, who obliged them with some true Hollywood posturing. It was fun to watch.

After a very flattering minute-long introductory video made by the high-school film students, it was our turn to take the stage. Following our show plan, Dre went out first and played an improvised solo; Corey, who would be next, took his time and waited an extended period before ambling onto the stage (Corey’s not Hollywood). Paul and I eagerly joined shortly after and we all began the official intro which immediately segued into the high energy song “zone out” as Piph joined us onstage. Paul, excited at the sight of a really good crowd, clicked his sticks high above his head before beginning his drumbeat (yes that’s a little Hollywood). After a handful of our original tunes, we again brought on the opening act rappers who joined us in performing a Reggae rendition of our song “Same Game.” During the climax of the song, Paul improvised an amazing multi-measure drum-roll with syncopated accents (Paul was happy to perform for the crowd during this show—i.e. Hollywood). We next covered Tupac’s “California Love” while the dancers performed incredible acrobatic breakdancing. Towards the end of the show, we invited everyone to the front of the stage for the massive selfie. Yet before we could even get into position, Dre, wearing his new flashy dark shades, had taken pictures with five different people (Hollywood Dre!). When we began the final song Dre continued his Hollywood lifestyle by posing for pictures and video during the song— he even left his keyboard station in the middle of the song to dance and take pictures, (granted it was during a part when he didn’t have to play). Piph, likely threatened by Dre’s spotlight, attempted to jump into the audience to rap (that’s definitely Hollywood) but he was immediately pushed back to the stage by our Algerian body guards (yes having Algerian body guards is incredibly Hollywood)— “Alright, I’m gonna get down here with you for this verse, ohp, nevermind” I heard him say into his microphone. I even saw Corey embrace his inner Hollywood by moving to the front of the stage and playing directly to the immediate crowd. During my solo, I tried to indulge in the Hollywood games by cranking up and walking out to the center of the stage and I would have gone to the front, but my instrument cable wasn’t long enough (it’s not a very Hollywood instrument cable). The crowd was in an uproar by the end of the show and I’m sure we all felt justified in our Hollywood behavior.

And thus, the great Hollywood debate will surely rage on. In all sincerity, however, I am extremely grateful that everyone in the band is actually extremely down to earth, authentic, and kind-hearted. We enjoy performing and getting into the act onstage, as well as ribbing each other offstage, but the truth is that no one in the band has a difficult personality. I do believe that there are many performing musicians (both famous and not), who enjoy admiration more than music, but I can honestly say that for all of us, the music comes first.

Monday, February 16:

Today was our travel day from Tlemcen to the capital city of Algiers. Before I talk about that however, I’d like to reveal something about our time in Algeria that I felt I could not write about days earlier. Almost as soon as we got off the plane in Oran we were informed that we would not be able to go anywhere without a Police escort, that we would always have to travel everywhere with the whole group (no wandering off on your own), and that we should assume that our emails/texts/facebook messages/phone calls/skype sessions were being viewed or recorded (therefore we should not use these mediums to write or say anything critical of the government). Traveling around Tlemcen, we were always accompanied by at least two (and sometimes up to five) security guards or police officers— I was even trailed into the bathroom by one of them during one of our rehearsals. I’m still not totally sure if this was for our safety, or because we were viewed suspiciously by the government. To be fair the guards and police were pretty friendly and we were actually able to get to know them somewhat; regardless, I’ve never in my adult life experienced such a feeling of lack of freedom. I am able to write this now because I’ll be publishing this while in Equatorial Guinea.

Back to the story: We traveled from Tlemcen to Algiers via a long five hour train ride. Luckily Fatma took charge of the train station employees and was able to secure us our own section of the train. I sat next to her during the ride and was happy to get to know her better— she had travelled all around the world, but was still in love with her coastal hometown of Algiers; she has two boys ages six and nine; she had recently taken up salsa dancing, and she loves to laugh and joke around. During the train ride she even weighed in on the great Hollywood debate (see previous day), ranking us as Dre, Corey, Piph, me, and Paul (from most Hollywood to least).

After we arrived in Algiers, we drove to a local kebab restaurant in a bullet proof embassy van. We’ve decided that one of our cultural gifts to Algeria and Morocco should be the practice of writing down restaurant orders. At the restaurant our orders were all wrong (except for mine for some reason) because this waiter (like many others not used to our picky American tastes) did not write the order down. After hungrily eating our incorrect sandwiches in the van, we checked into our hotel where we enjoyed best internet connection of the tour and settled in for some much needed sleep.

Tuesday, February 17:

Today four of us (Piph, Paul, Corey, and I) partook in an early morning workout— fitness is apparently a priority for Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe. After breakfast we drove to an auditorium located in a shopping mall underneath the grand, famous Algiers Martyrs Memorial. There we jammed with the Algerian Blues band King Melody (who played a nice rendition of Eric Clapton’s “You look Wonderful Tonight”), and worked up a nice collaboration with local hip-hop/reggae artist Joe for the following night’s show. We were particularly happy to work with the most talented and accommodating sound crew of our trip so far, who provided us each with our exact volume and equalization specifications.

Yet the real treat of the day came when we were taken to the U.S. Embassy where Ida and Fatma work. To prevent us from stealing government secrets, we had to leave all of our electronics (aside from our instruments which we would use later) at the opening security check. One of us took this as an opportunity to flirt with the cute Algerian security officer who ex-rayed our bags (there is no Tinder community in Algeria so we have to engage the opposite sex in real life). Inside we had a lasagna lunch at the cafeteria and then went to the Embassy’s Information Resource Center (IRC), a library and media center that organizes numerous programs and events in order “to provide authoritative, up-to-date information to the Algerian audience on U.S. policy, and to promote public awareness, and facilitate mutual understanding of political, economic, trade, cultural and environmental issues” (from the Algerian US embassy website). There we had a stimulating and open discussion with Algerian university students and adults who were interested in learning more about American culture (luckily they all spoke English, so we could speak directly to them without the aid of a translator). We talked about why they liked or disliked Hip-Hop, our inspiration and reason for pursuing music, and our goals for the future. Upon they’re request, we finished by performing a stripped down rendition of our song “Feel Alright” with Paul beating on a table, me playing the Embassy’s acoustic guitar, and Piph rapping.

After our group discussion we packed into the radio room and did a podcast interview with the lovely Selma Mouloudj (a senior biology major at the university, English teacher, Embassy employee, and Fulbright scholarship hopeful). Despite Selma’s best efforts at professionalism, the band was having too much fun and we often took the interview to outrageous and off-the-wall places— I know she’ll have to edit out much of the hilarity of this interview but I still greatly look forward to hearing it. We then had a short hour to rest, check email, and chat with Selma before setting up in the Embassy’s atrium to perform at a party for the Ambassador and other state department employees. At the party we played a handful of our songs, met Ambassador Joan A. Polaschik (a very pleasant, fun woman who even helped us out with one of our songs), watched other local artists perform, enjoyed drinks and H’orderves, and even shared the stage with a band of embassy employees for a fun rendition of the classic American song “Wagon-Wheel.” This was a wonderful event that seemed to bring everyone in attendance a lot of joy— the Americans in attendance were grateful to experience a small taste of home, while the Algerians enjoyed getting to see an immediate glimpse of American culture.

After such an eventful day, we were happy to ate a delicious Pizza dinner in the comfort of Francois and Ida’s home. Ida played the bartender, and Francois the DJ as we talked about their college age kids, travel, and the great day we had just enjoyed.

Wednesday, February 18:

Today we had nothing scheduled until the late afternoon. The others rested, worked, and refreshed but I took this as an opportunity to continue the stimulating discussion about life in Algeria with Selma Mouloudj that we began the previous day. After her morning class at the nearby University, she joined me for tea at the hotel lounge. There we discussed two subjects familiar to most twenty somethings (she is 22 and I am 26): 1. Relationships 2. What to do after college life. Though we had similar desires in each area, I quickly discovered that she has obstacles that I have never had to consider. She explained that she plans on getting a master’s degree in Marine Biology and that eventually she would like a job that would allow her to travel. She badly wants to go to grad school in America for the high quality education and because she loves American culture (first learning to speak English by watching American TV shows like Beverly Hills, 90210). However, Algeria has the strange custom of not recognizing foreign degrees, so some of the most hard-working and talented Algerian students who earn degrees abroad, even at the most prestigious American and European schools, find it difficult or impossible to find jobs in their field when they return to Algeria. Even so, Selma is considering applying for one of the 5 or 6 Fulbright scholarships given to Algerian seniors each year which would allow her study in America.

Juggling school, two jobs, and résumé building has left Selma little time for that other great element of young adult life: dating. Yet it seems that even if she did have time for a boyfriend, she would face other difficulties in finding and maintaining a relationship. She told me that most young Algerians date, but that they cannot tell their parents because there is a strong cultural taboo against pre-marital sex and relationships (parental influence seems to extend much further in Algeria than in America—often people will simply live with their parents until they are married). The situation is especially frustrating for women because any female suspected of not being a virgin is considered essentially unfit for marriage. Ironically, she knows young women who have been directly and unromantically asked for sex from men on multiple occasions. She said that she simply wants to find someone nice to date who she can talk to and understands her, yet she’s encountered a world that has shunned public relationships and offered only casual encounters. During this trip I’ve been consistently reminded of the many gifts I’ve taken for granted while living in America, and after my conversation with Selma, I’ll certainly add the freedom to date to this growing list.

Around 4:00 we packed up and headed back to the performance hall to prepare for our show, and it was here that we discovered that Piph had been feeling sick since the morning. While Corey, Paul, Dre, and I conducted sound-check and rehearsed with the rappers who we would be collaborating with in the evening, Piph rested backstage. As showtime approached, Piph was in a feeble state and found it difficult to even speak with the many artists, officials, and fans coming and going before the show. Ida attempted to help feed Piph some healing energy by massaging some acupuncture points and I offered him some medicine my doctor sister had prescribed me in case of travel sickness. Miraculously, Piph was able to muster enough energy and adrenaline to put on a great show with us for the large and energetic Algerian audience. Having seen his pained face and sickly demeanor before the show, I was amazed that Piph was able to power through and perform at such a high level.

Because he was feeling especially weak after the show, we dropped Piph off at the Hotel (our stringent security measures were relaxed in Algiers), and then jetted on to a Hookah Bar/Restaurant to eat and celebrate our final night in Algeria. There our conversation with Ida and Fatma echoed my discussion with Selma earlier in the day. After Corey curiously asked about romantic life and dating customs in Algeria, Ida (the American) first responded that young people do not date and then Fatma (the Algerian) quickly countered with “of course Algerians date!” Ida was simply articulating what she had seen and heard from many Algerians— on the surface it perhaps does appear that there is no romance in Algeria. Fatma however, having grown up in Algeria, was quick to reveal that she had dated her husband before marrying him and that most other Algerians do in fact date. It seems that it is sometimes easy to mistake a country’s public policy for the actual behavior of that country’s people. Yet I’ve been inspired on this trip to see that despite economic, religious, social, and governmental barriers, people will invariably find ways to satisfy their need for art, music, education, and romance.

Thursday, February 19:

We bid a groggy goodbye to Algeria early this morning. Waking at 4:00am, we were in the air and on our way to Paris by 6:30am. Unfortunately Piph’s sickness had not resided and he was feeling especially drained having slept very little and eaten nothing since breakfast the previous day. On the plane we had the most intense health scare of our journey when Piph fainted in the aisle on his way from the restroom back to his seat. He quickly regained consciousness and the nurses gave him a cocktail of medicines to keep him afloat until we could land. For better or worse, I was asleep in another part of the plane for this ordeal, and only learned about it when I met Marc outside of our plane. However, by the time I saw Piph he was already joking about the two petite French stewardesses trying to support his huge limp body. Marc gave Piph a few options: 1. check into a French clinic, 2. fly back to the U.S., or 3. continue on to Equatorial Guinea as planned. Piph instantly chose the latter.

Thus we said goodbye and thank you to Marc, who was returning to the U.S. — he had been extremely helpful in navigating the first two legs of our voyage and promised to continue to be in communication with us if there were any questions, concerns, or needs during the rest of our trip. Before he left, he gave me multiple Paris medical contacts to use just in case Piph’s condition worsened. We located our gate and then I went to find Piph some much needed food and water. Feeling better from the medicine he received on the plane, Piph was able to eat and drink, and we all made it on to the plane feeling encouraged. I passed the time on the plane by sleeping, watching Scarlett Johansson destroy people in the in-flight movie Lucy, and talking to an adorable four year old Cameroonian girl and her mother (the little girl and I basically had the same french language skill and bid each other “au revoir” and “a bientot” multiple times at the end of our flight). Piph was feeling a good deal better, and we landed in Malabo, E.G. without incident.

Stepping off the plane we immediately felt a sensation we hadn’t felt in weeks: heat. We were happy to encounter an orderly scene at customs, which was even expedited for us by someone hired by the U.S. embassy. We then met embassy workers Michael (an American) and Piedad (a local) who would be accompanying us this week (they are the Equatorial Guinean edition of Ida and Fatma). After checking into the hotel, Paul, Dre, Michael, and I drove to the U.S. embassy housing where two fellow Americans named Lauren and Cormac had prepared us a delicious chicken taco dinner in their home (Piph and Corey were feeling tired and sick so they stayed at the hotel). We all got to know each other while watching Sportscenter on American TV, an extremely comforting experience amidst our foreign adventure.

Friday, February 20:

Our morning drive to the U.S. Embassy offered us our first breathtaking glimpse of the giant inactive volcano that stands above the island. We also saw an impressive array of large, extremely modern buildings lining the road from the hotel to the embassy— Oil was discovered in E.G. in the mid 1990’s and there are parts of this tiny country that exude great wealth and extravagance. When we arrived at the Embassy, we overlooked the sound-system and then met with Ambassador Mark Asquino for a fascinating lesson on the History of Equatorial Guinea, which he claimed is “perhaps the most unique country in Africa.” He explained that E.G. was originally colonized by Portugal before being traded to Spain in exchange for land that would become part of Brazil. Spain later leased E.G. to England to run as a haven for freed African slaves. The English helped foster a flourishing agricultural economy in E.G., yet when they attempted to purchase the country, the Spanish (who had done very little in E.G.), oddly refused. Thus, while broken “Pidgin English” is still widely spoken here, Equatorial Guinea is the only African country whose official language is Spanish (there are numerous indigenous languages that are still spoken here as well). E.G. was finally granted independence in 1968. Unfortunately, the country came instantly into the control of a ruthless dictator named Francisco Macías Nguema who ushered in a ten year “reign of terror” which saw mass killings and economic decimation in the country. In 1979 Macías’ nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema overthrew him and became the new President of E.G., a position he still holds today (he is Africa’s longest serving dictator). Thus, Ambassador Asquino stated that the history of E.G. is in large part a history of trauma, “first the trauma of colonialism, and then the trauma of dictatorship.” Yet he told us that he truly can see hope for this country in the many talented and open-minded young people that the country boasts. Furthermore he framed the importance of our visit by stating that American musicians almost never come to E.G. (the last group to visit was a gospel band that came five years ago) but that young people love Hip-Hop and many may consider our visit “the cultural event of the year.”

After our conversation Piph, Corey, and Dre visited the embassy nurse for some much needed medicine and care and soon we departed for the tiny nearby town of Rebola. On the drive over Piedad told me that Rebola means “lots of kids” in Bubi (the name of tribe/language native to the island portion of E.G.), and when we arrived, I could see why. In front of the Rebola cultural center were over a dozen small, raggedly dressed children (ranging from roughly 2-6) dancing, playing, and wrestling with each other. The town as a whole was, for me, reminiscent only of scenes I’ve seen on television— brightly clad women with buckets of water balanced on their heads walked down a single dirt road which was lined with small houses made of cheap aluminum siding and makeshift parts. Atop the cultural center’s upstairs balcony, we met and rehearsed with some Bubi rappers, but our practice was abruptly interrupted by a funeral procession for an old woman who had died that morning— her casket was slowly driven by in a pickup truck as well over 100 people trailed behind on foot and together sang a beautiful west African Hymn. When all the people had finally passed by we stood speechlessly marveling at the breathtaking moment of community we had just seen.

After rehearsal we went briefly back to the hotel and then returned to Rebola to see the town’s name again affirmed— about 80 small children were there sitting and waiting patiently for the outdoor show to begin. The local rappers soon started the show as the already large audience continued to grow. Though I had virtually no idea what they were talking about, I was very impressed by the rhythm, stage presence, and delivery of many of the Bubi rappers as they energetically performed in front of the two impressive cultural center murals at the back of the stage. When it was our turn, we were pumped up to perform for the fun and energized crowd, yet as soon as soon as we struck our first collective chord we blew out the mixer that was amplifying the keyboard, guitar, and bass. It appeared for a moment that Piph was going to have to perform without the band, but our sound guy soon found and connected us to a backup sound system. During the wait a group of Rebola’s children began performing a choreographed dance routine in order to pass the time. After finally getting reconnected and amplified, we made our second attempt at starting the show. Despite less than desirable equipment, we played a well and had a blast performing with our Bubi collaborators in front of an incredible crowd (the largest of our tour so far). On the way back to the hotel we reflected on the enormous number of children at the show, the technical difficulties, the language barrier, and the distinct scene of the show and we all agreed that it was likely the most unique show we’ve ever performed together.

I’ve been putting off this blog post for far too long… Even now, as I am beginning to write it, I’m also playing a TED talk in the background (the one about how body posture influences how we feel about ourselves), grasping at any last shred of distraction and procrastination. Ok, I’m turning it off— I know I can’t write and listen at the same time.

If you’ve stumbled upon my blog for the first time, you should know that I had tasked myself with documenting my shows, activities, and experiences with Little Rock Indie Rock mainstay The See during our two and a half week tour around the country (a component task of the overarching purpose for this blog). For the first two weeks, I did well to post my reflections every couple of days. Then, suddenly, all the loud shows, late nights, long drives, and deficient food caught up with me, and I didn’t have enough fumes to spare for a blog post— I reserved my energy for the stage.

Thus, having not posted anything in over a week, I’d like to give some quick thoughts about the final shows of our tour.

Thursday July 11, Kansas:
This was actually the one day of the tour which we did not have a show. We played in Kansas City the night before and were playing in Denver the next night so we decided to drive halfway to Denver, find a hotel in the middle of Kansas, and relax for the evening. We first stopped in Salina for a delicious hamburger lunch at the famous Cozy Inn (voted best burger in Kansas!) and a game of catch at a local high-school football field before arriving in Hays and checking in to the Ramada Inn. We enjoyed the indoor pool, water-slide, and hot-tub, and then wandered in to the hotel bar to discover that they had a stage… We asked the bartender if we could play a show there that night and she was open to it. Three of us wanted to do it (we wouldn’t be paid— simply the novelty of it was very appealing), but one of us (you know who you are) was adamant about having the night off. We ended up going to see the movie Pacific Rim instead. This proved to be possibly the worst mistake of the tour. Now I know Pacific Rim is actually getting a lot of good reviews from a number of sources, which is why I want to go on record and say that it as actually a terrible film, filled with forced dialogue, racial stereotypes, rehashed movie cliches, plot and logic holes, and mediocre CGI action sequences. Instead of playing rock and roll at a random hotel in the middle of Kansas (and having an awesome story to tell), we saw a dumb movie (which I want to point out, I told my bandmates would be bad) that we could have just as easily seen in Little Rock.

Ok, that’s as negative as I’m going to get in this post. On to better things…

Friday July 12, Denver:
Denver was the site of the first show of this incarnation of The See (bass-man Jason Tedford and I joined the band in March and played at Denver’s Walnut Room in April). It was nice to return to what is becoming a home away from home—we have a number of friends living there (who kindly let us stay at their homes) and now three different venues at which we have performed. This night we were part of a five band bill at a club called Herman’s Hideaway. We were tacked on to this show only a week before, so we performed at the very beginning of the set, kicking things off at 7:00pm. Surprisingly, people began steadily trickling in at this early hour and by the time we finished, there was a decent number of people who had heard us play (albeit, many were in the other bands). We sold some CD’s and met some cool Denvernians; yet most importantly, we impressed the sound guy, bartenders, and other bands enough for them to tell us that they definitely want to have us back. Making a good impression on the people most influential in booking shows was a primary purpose of every show, and we achieved it not only with our stage performance, but just as much by showing up on time, having efficient sound checks, being friendly and cordial, and setting up/tearing down our equipment as quickly as possible (at Herman’s we had all of our amps, pedal boards, guitars, and drums packed up and offstage in only seven minutes). We didn’t expect to make a ton of money or achieve instant fame on this one tour (our expectations were met), yet we do hope that by creating a network of helpful musicians and club-owners in other cities, we will be able to draw bigger audiences and receive more payment for future shows.

Saturday July 13, still in Denver:
Case in point: We played this night at Denver’s Merchant’s Mile-High Saloon, one of the two stops on our tour at which we had previously performed. Having impressed the sound guy and bartenders when we played there in April, the good folks at Merchant’s did a great job of promoting this show. This was perhaps the most well attended, high-energy show of our tour— absolutely the one that made me feel most like a rock star— the audience was clapping, dancing, yelling, and some even singing along to our songs. Feeding off of this energy, we played with passion and joy, savoring the moment, enjoying the zone. My single favorite moment of tour happened onstage during this show: at a particularly heavy moment in a song called Yul Brynner, Joe slammed-strummed his guitar with the force of Thor’s hammer, breaking a guitar string and shaking his guitar out of tune. There was a sudden quiet moment coming up of Joe singularly singing and strumming his guitar so he gave me a wordless look, we both nodded at each other, and when the time came, I played his guitar part as he sang and tuned his remaining strings. The song could have easily been derailed by the string-break (and it probably would have been had it happened earlier on in our tour), but instead we communicated with a single glance, adjusted seamlessly, and finished the song as strongly as ever.

Sunday July 14, Lincoln, NE:
I had never been to Lincoln before, and am not aware of any particular cultural stereotypes about Nebraska, so I didn’t know at all what to expect from this part of the country. What I found there was an attractive downtown, gorgeous weather, and an engaged supportive crowd at Duffy’s Tavern. We played our set and people responded extremely well, buying our merchandise and giving us shots of whiskey, but personally I was unsatisfied with our performance. Had this been our first or second show, it would have been fine, but we honestly didn’t play with a very high-level of rhythmic or technical accuracy. I got off the stage and was happy to meet and greet people, yet it didn’t feel to me like it was time to celebrate. As we play more and more shows, my critique of the band will get more and more demanding and this band will only remain satisfying to me if we continue to improve individually and as a collective. As Joe and I sat in the van that night, getting ready to fall asleep instead of joining the nearby after-party, we talked about what is not working in the band, what is going well, and how to improve. These are always useful conversations to have, but especially important after shows with such a favorable audience reaction. For the temptation is to use the audience as a measuring stick of our performance, but the truth is that many audiences are drunk and uncritical, responding well to any loud noises and high-energy— only we in the band have the perspective and familiarity to know whether or not we have played to our full potential. We simply have to be honest with ourselves, own up to poor performances, and strive to continually improve.

Monday July 15, Wichita, KS:
Kirby’s Beer Store is a tiny, deteriorating, graffitied, stickered-up, unpretentious dive bar, too tiny to host a full band and we just love it there. We love it there because back in April, with only a week’s notice, Kirby’s was kind enough to set us up with a show and a place to stay on our way home from our first Denver trip; we love it because we get to see our friend and stellar singer/songwriter Ryan Stoldt whenever we play there (come to Little Rock Ryan, you’ll have a place to stay!); and finally we love it because the room is so small that if you have seven people in the audience, it’s a packed house. Having such a relaxed environment for our final show and being relatively close to home made for a pleasant end to a long tour. We played well and with poise (sounding like we had indeed played these songs for 16 days in a row), and plodded on through some technical mishaps (the power to my guitar pedals went out mid-song, so I quickly plugged directly in to the amp). After the show, we took our time packing up, drove back to our hotel, watched National Lampoon’s Vacation, slept, ate a terrible breakfast the next day at a local restaurant, and eagerly drove back to Little Rock.

It’s good to be home.

Thursday July 11, The See tour day 13, leaving Kansas City:

Missouri was rejuvenating.

We stayed and played in Springfield on Tuesday and got the star treatment from Joe’s parents Bill and Peggy— they let us stay in their beautiful home, cooked us a delicious steak dinner, stayed out late to see our show, made us french-press coffee in the morning, and then took us out for Mexican food in the afternoon! Luckily we were also well received by Springfieldonians not blood related to our lead singer. We played at the charmingly hip, if decaying club, The Outland Barroom to a friendly late-night crowd of PBR drinkers and received more compliments (and sold more merchandise) than any other show of our tour thus far. Though my first impression of Springfield was unflattering (the land of strip-malls and mega-churches), I thought downtown Springfield was groovy— I enjoyed some delicious pre-show caffeine at a local coffee shop called the Mudhouse, strolled the spacious sidewalks, and even got to view Saturn through a powerful telescope that a man had randomly set up on a street corner (seriously).

It was hard to leave the fine accommodations, food, payment, and people of Springfield. We were there just long enough to get really comfortable before having to depart abruptly for Kansas City. The touring rock-band experience is highly romanticized*, with uproarious shows, adoring fans, ecstatic partying, and fiery liaisons being the enduring stereotypical images. Yet for us (and I have to imagine the majority of touring bands), touring has included a lot of driving, packing/unpacking the van, sleeping on floors, and eating cheap food. In Springfield the perks of a settled, domestic life were made explicitly clear— never has a bed been so soft, steak tasted so delicious, or a shower felt so cleansing to me. Luckily we were spoiled again in Kansas City by Joe’s sister Mo who gave us cozy couches and beds to sleep on after our early show at the large, sleek, downtown venue, the Czar Bar. We played a short solid set, sold some merchandise, watched the other bands, went to Mo’s house, showered, got a full night’s sleep, and woke in time to watch a comically bad Kansas City morning show over cups of coffee. It was great.

Friday July 12, The See tour day 14, on the road to Denver:

I’m certainly not saying that the comforts of home are better than the fun of touring. The comforts of home are good in relation to the adventure and struggle of touring. A soft bed, morning coffee, frequent hot meals, friends/family, and a regular routine all sound extremely appealing to me right now and I know I will cherish them when I return home… for a while… then slowly but surely these things will become the norm again, I’ll probably begin to take them for granted, and eventually my home life will seem a bit boring; I’ll again crave the thrill of new people and places. Yes it is tempting to dream up “have your cake and eat it too” hypotheticals: What if we were famous and could afford to travel in a tour bus with all the luxuries of home, have a crew of roadies to unload for us, and still get to enjoy the excitement of playing shows in new places? Though I would certainly never turn that scenario down, I know that if we were to gain it, we would lose much of what is making this tour such a rich, authentic, and humbling experience— staying night to night with friends and friendly strangers, impressing new listeners with our performances, eating and hanging out for cheap (i.e. picnics in parks), loading/unloadiing our own equipment (great exercise), and truly appreciating any small temporary comforts. I daresay that I will never be ultimately satisfied by any particular circumstances (e.g. wealth, fame, romance, talent, victory)— every gain in one area is counterbalanced by a loss in another. I think that the only way for circumstances to actually be satisfying is for them to perpetually change. Knowing this, I hope that I continue to have opportunities in my life (both musically and personally) to shift between periods of comfort and adventure, abstinence and indulgence, and consistency and novelty.

*I have no doubt in my mind that in the future I too will romanticize this tour and this time in my life. This is one of those “tell your grandkids about it” experiences, and I can easily see the story of the tour growing in stature as I get further and further removed from it. To be fair, much of this experience has been truly incredible: driving up to so many attractive skylines (Nashville, Louisville, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, etc.), meeting so many interesting people (Ben, Darren, Valerie, Sarah, etc.), growing closer to my bandmates (Joe, Jason, Tyler, etc.), really hitting a strong stride in our performances, and enjoying the nightlife every now and again. This is likely, and thankfully what I will always remember about this tour. But to only remember the good times will be to create an idealized and inaccurate image of this tour. Yes it has been wonderful, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I just want to point out now, while I still remember it, that it’s not all fun and freedom.

Monday July 8, The See on tour day 10, at a club in St. Louis:

I’m blogging right now from the back of The Firebird in St. Louis. The band in front of me is as loud as anything I’ve ever heard. Even though it is inordinately loud, I have know idea what the music is saying. I hear some wholehearted “woos” from the crowd at the end of the set, so maybe they know. We were tacked on to this four band show at the last minute so we had to play a short opening set before two local bands and the main event, Brooklyn based three-piece Lemuria. This show would have made much more sense if we had played third in the line up. These first two bands are at a much more amateur level than The See. Yes that statement probably sounded snobbish and judgmental, but I’m not trying to be harsh. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that most every band sucks when they first start playing. It takes a large amount of desire, trial and error, and practice to simply not suck. The See has been putting forth great effort at home and on tour, and I feel confident in saying that we do not suck. I try to resist focusing on rewards (to be able to play music should be a reward in itself), yet it is hard not to wish for higher populated, higher paying shows when we are pouring so much time and energy into this project…

Whatever, I want to talk about Chicago. We played there the past two nights at two bars right down the street from each other. Saturday we played at an old, dark, dirty dive bar called The Mutiny (most every Chicagoan I talked to gave a mischievous, knowing smile when I mentioned I played there). The sound quality at the Mutiny was low as expected, on par with the sound at our first stop of the tour, The Nick. Yet whereas at the Nick we sort of folded under the dual pressure of poor sound and an apathetic crowd, we rose above the circumstances at the Mutiny and played a great set. Encountering such different crowds and environments every night has provided us with the crucial realization that we should only worry about what we can control: our performance. Luckily playing every night has naturally sharpened our performance. Sunday we played another solid, streamlined set a couple of blocks down the street at Quenchers, a newer, cleaner, better sounding venue. It was also helpful and energizing that for both of these shows we played with my favorite band (personally and musically) of the tour so far, Planar Ally (yes that’s a Dungeons and Dragons reference). Planar Ally played precise, melodic, rhythmically-advanced instrumental Indie-Prog-Rock comparable to Battles (but unique all its own— check them out!).

Quick side note: Instrumental Indie-Prog-Rock? That may seem like superfluous genre labeling, but as more and more people around the world play and share music, musical subcultures are becoming more and more specialized. We can either try to lump these musics into broad genres (i.e. Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop, Blues, Jazz, R&B, Soul, Classical), eschew genre entirely, or get more and more specific in our genre labels. I’ve certainly met musicians and bands in each camp. Because I believe that music is a multiplicity and not a universal language (with every instance of music inseparably linked to its own specific cultural and historical context), because I believe that specificity is better than generalization, and because it is just a fun game, I prefer to get particular (and yes a little facetious) with my genre titles.

The See’s genre? Atmospheric Indie-Mystery-Rock. It’s brand new. Get with it 😉

Tuesday July 9, The See tour day 11, on the road to Springfield, MO:

In Chicago we stayed with Planar Ally’s stellar drummer, and overall cool guy Ben Simpson. He composes a lot of the music for Planar Ally electronically, using Ableton Live, creating complex, multi-meter drum-beats that he then learns to play live on the drum-set. I admire this process because it doesn’t limit Ben to simply what he can play at any one moment. It frees him to compose in accordance with his musical imagination (rather than his muscle memory), and eventually increases his drumming dexterity as well. Listen to Wolf Lover for one of Ben’s creations. I’d like to adopt this strategy of composing and performing going forward, because as much as I feel like a relatively good guitarist and musician, I do get stuck sometimes playing through the same old patterns that my fingers know so well. I want to shift my musical output away from what is merely physically convenient and towards new tonal possibilities.

Overall Chicago was a great experience. It was extremely refreshing to simply stay put in one place for longer than a day. Though we didn’t get to explore much of the city, it was inspiring to see such great musicians and to be surrounded by so much cultural achievement.

Wow, that sounded like the ending to a seventh grade book report. I’m sorry y’all. I’m going to level with you, this was a difficult post to write. The lack of sleep is catching up with me. I’m happy that I’m posting this because I told myself that I would keep this blog going on tour, but man, this blog has seen better posts. Catch you next time.

The See on tour Day 6, on the road to Muncie, Indiana:

A couple nights ago we played at the Irish pub Murphy’s in Memphis on our drummer Tyler Nance’s birthday. Fortunately Memphis is Tyler’s hometown and he had about a dozen people come see us play. Unfortunately there were only about five other people in the audience. This is to be somewhat expected on a Tuesday night (and a Tuesday night in which we were competing with Bob Dylan’s AmericanaramA), yet it is hard not to wish for a larger crowd. A full room of engaged listeners is extremely energizing for a band, and by contrast an empty room can be utterly draining. On nights when attendance is not as high as we would like, our task is to avoid discouragement, and just focus on the precise execution of our songs. There is a strong temptation to not play with much effort or care when the audience is small, but to give in to this temptation is to give up a wonderful opportunity to improve the performance and, more gravely, it is to disregard the potentially life-affirming experience that can happen any time you pick up an instrument and perform music with others. I am happy that we did play well in memphis and generally do a good job of playing with high energy and focus regardless of our audience size.

Tyler told me he thought that it was the best show we had played yet. While I was generally satisfied with how we played, I felt like we rushed the tempo on a few songs and could have played with more dynamic flexibility— I definitely did not think it was our best show. Joe too expressed some minor frustrations with the show, and eventually we all began to talk about what went right and wrong and what each of our favorite shows had been so far. Jason thought that the night before in Nashville had been our best show; I thought the night before that in Chattanooga was the best; Joe hadn’t yet been completely satisfied with any show. It was strange to me that we all had such different opinions. Yet I realize now that we are all at least somewhat guilty of believing our own personal best show to be the band’s best show. It is a difficult but necessary step to take in performing music to focus less on your individual sound, and more on the collective sound. The worn out sports adage “there is no I in team” holds true for musicians as well: there is no I in band. As we get more and more comfortable and accurate with our individual performance, I will certainly be expecting us to improve the collective quality of our sound. This means adjusting our volume in real time (not with pedals or knobs, but through the tried and true technique of playing with varying strength/pressure) in accordance with what is the most prominent voice in the band at any moment— when Joe is singing, the rest of the band plays under his volume; when anyone has an instrumental solo, the band plays under that person; otherwise, our sound is balanced so that the audience can clearly hear everyone. There is no great effort needed to accomplish this— often the simple, but intentional act of listening more to each other than oneself will produce this wonderful musical effect naturally.

Last night we played in Louisville at a delightful little bar called the 3rd Street Dive. Though it was partially an open mic night, we and two other acts were considered the featured artists. The first two featured acts were an acoustic singer songwriter named Samantha Harlowe (who sung heartbreakingly vulnerable songs in a beautiful, powerful voice) and a great boy-girl folk-pop duo from Dallas called Zach and Corina. We were a little self-conscious about stepping on-stage and kicking up the volume after such a nice light-rocking, but we played through a short set and ended up being very well-received by both the audience, owner, and employees. A delightful couple named Darren and Valerie were kind enough to let us stay at their home.

Ok, so it has been about 24 hours since I wrote all that. Instead of trying to go back and pick-up where I left off, I’m just going to start with fresh thoughts from a new perspective. This may not make for the best narrative, but I had a long, weird, fun fourth of July celebration in Muncie Indiana and my mind is in a totally new place so…

The See on tour Day 7, in a laundromat in Normal, IL:

Did I just say I have fresh thoughts? Fresh is not the right adjective for my thoughts right now. Suffice it to say (I’m not going to go into incriminating detail here) that last night in Muncie was the first time on tour that I indulged in the proverbial “rock and roll lifestyle” and I’m now feeling the aftereffects. Obviously this “rock and roll lifestyle” is not a sustainable one, but last night was America’s birthday, and I am in a rock and roll band, and sometimes rock and roll works better with whiskey! I think it was a good moment for the band to cut loose and just rock out. Thus far we’ve been very deliberate and business-like (read: sober) in our performances and analysis of our performances. This has been extremely helpful in improving the technical execution of our songs, and should remain our standard modus operandi going forward, but last night was the right time to get a little wild. As far as I can tell, Muncie is a lawless land run by friendly, fun-loving, dirty hipsters— I didn’t see any police while I was there, but I did see plenty of thrift store-outfitted twenty-somethings drinking 24 oz. Miller High Life’s, playing tone deaf indie-punk rock, shooting off fireworks in the street, and smoking all manner of plant-life in the open air. Ergo, when in Muncie, do as the Munsters do. We did end up playing a great high-energy set and were very well received at the large quirky club Be Here Now. Unless you are my parents (who are probably reading this actually—hey M & D), please ask me in person about the riotous wilderness that is Muncie.

The See on tour Day 8, on the road to Chicago:

Last night we played in aptly named Normal, Illinois. With it’s clean, tree-lined streets, beautiful parks, and quaint restaurants, Normal offered a pleasant refuge from the Muncie madness. We took a much needed trip to the laundromat and then (because we were saturated with a good two-day bar-room funk, without a shower in sight) we went to a local water park, swam, rode some water-slides, soaked in the sun and showered/shaved in the locker room (all for only six bucks y’all). Feeling like a whole new band, we went to the venue, Firehouse Pizza & Pub, and unloaded our gear. The good folks at Firehouse then fed us all the free pizza we could eat, we listened to the two opening acts (an acoustic singer/songwriter with saxophone accompaniment, and Kyle from Normal band These Old Ghosts), chatted with some locals, played a stellar set, and came away with our biggest payday yet. We stayed at the home of two hilarious Normal residents and Nintendo enthusiasts named Jake and Alex. Jake, if you are reading this, I demand a rematch in Super Smash Bros. Normal was definitely the most materially nourishing stop on our journey thus far: we slept, we ate, we showered, and we were paid. Yet aside from simply receiving much needed sustenance, we were also introduced to a thriving community enthusiastic about art and live music. Normal, Illinois has been the most pleasant surprise of the tour thus far, and I can’t wait to come back.

Onward to Chicago!

Note: I had hoped originally that I would be able to post a blog everyday about the previous day’s show. But life is moving fast on tour, wi fi connections are few and far between, and hours when I could write easily get eaten up by naps, games of catch, picnics, pool-trips, warmups, and general socializing. I’m not complaining about this at all—I’m having a blast— but I do apologize to anyone who happens to be following this blog for the infrequent updates (I’m going to try to do better).

“Mountains and Valleys man, mountains and valleys” — I heard the voice of a streetwise Matthew McConaughey repeating these words to me as I woke up yesterday morning. Apparently Matthew McConaughey is the voice of the sector of my conscience that reveals (in quick, folksy quips no less) the wisdom contained in my experiences. What ole Mathew was referring to in this instance was the dichotomy between our show in Birmingham (documented here), and our show in Chattanooga.
In brief, we played what was likely the least enjoyable, lowest energy, most “I want to get off stage right now” show that we’ve played as a group thus far (in Birmingham), followed by (in Chattanooga) our best show yet. “Mountains and Valleys man.” How did this happen? Let me try to list some of the (more objective) factors contributing to the respective failure and success of each show. Birmingham: we didn’t get a chance to practice before this show (always important even though we do know all the songs we played); the show occurred immediately after a 6 hour drive (so we were stiff and groggy); there was a small unenthusiastic crowd (people who most likely just came to drink rather than hear live music); we were the only band playing; the venue was extremely grimy (distractingly so); and the sound was mixed poorly. Chattanooga: we only had to drive about an hour; we spent the day before the show relaxing and enjoying ourselves (playing catch, having a picnic, joking around); we had plenty of time to prepare for the show (vocal warmups, listening to the album etc.); we played at a clean, cozy venue to a decent and supportive crowd (people who actually came to hear some music); there were two other talented and enthusiastic bands playing (Mythical Motors, and Monomath); and the sound was very balanced. Most importantly however, I think the Chattanooga show was a success because the Birmingham show was a failure— after such a sloppy start to our tour, we were all extremely motivated to have a good show, resulting in our most focused and in sync effort yet.
Yet I also have to acknowledge that our subjective experience of each show as good or bad is intimately tied to our experience of every other show. The Chattanooga show wouldn’t necessarily have seemed so spectacular had the Birmingham show not seemed so drab. Similarly, the Birmingham show wouldn’t have felt so terrible had our previous show at Whitewater in Little Rock not been so well executed/received. “Mountains and Valleys man.” It is sobering to realize that this shifting up and down may never end. Being in a band (or simply being human), and having enjoyed the utter bliss of a great performance, I naturally want every show and every experience to be glorious (I want to stay atop the mountain). Yet as we play better shows, my threshold for what I consider a “good” show gets higher and higher, resulting in a greater probability that I experience a “bad” show; then, when I do experience a “bad” show, my expectations are slightly lowered and I am able to analyze and fix mistakes made, resulting in a likely spring-back to a “good” show, ad infinitum… I think that the desire to always succeed (though natural) can have unhealthy consequences, especially in a field such as music (in which success produces such a fine natural high, and chemical highs are often an easy substitute to secure). To realize that there is an inseparable bond between good and bad or success and failure, frees me up to dwell less on the outcome of my musical efforts, and focus more on enjoying the actual process of playing, practicing, and performing (whether atop the mountain or in the valley).

Last night we played in Nashville at The End with a diverse collection of impressive young bands. The Blake Parker Band was a group of 15-16 year olds that played heartfelt folk-rock songs. Abernathy (also 16 year olds) was a tight, bluesy two-piece (a la The Black Keys) with an incredibly talented front-girl singer/guitarist and rock solid drummer. Fable Cry (anywhere from age 16-32), a brother sister duo and self described Adventure-Gypsy/Scamp-Rock band, whimsically garbed in raccoon pelts and feathers, put on a captivating and theatrical performance of acoustic fantasy story-songs (seriously, these guys are something else, check em out). Seeing such young, talented, and passionate bands was extremely energizing for me. Because I am attempting to earn a living playing music, much of it can sometimes feel like a chore. I admit that I do sometimes lose sight of the fact that music is an incredible expression of human potential and my greatest passion. I’m probably too young to feel too nostalgic about anything, but seeing these younger bands play reminded me of how romantic I felt about being in a band and playing music when I was 16. I am (in touring with this band) literally living out a decade old dream of mine, and even though I am now much less romantic about the rock band experience than I once was, it’s nice to be able to remember my 16-year old self, step on stage, cut loose, and just have a blast. This tour is dedicated to you little Lucas.

Hey blog-readers, so for the next few weeks or so, this blog is essentially going to be The See’s tour diary… Because for the next few weeks, I’ll be on tour with The See! Who the heck is The See you ask? Well let me tell you:

Since forming in the summer of 2008, Little Rock’s The See have made a steady climb to the summit of the Arkansas music scene. With their infectious melodies and primal rhythms, cornerstone members Joe Yoder (vocals/guitar) and Tyler Nance (drums) have ferried the band to enduring success despite changing lineups. Audiences and critics alike are consistently delighted by the band’s uniquely crafted high-energy rock songs and cathartic live performance (often comparing The See to bands such as The Pixies, The Strokes, and Built to Spill).
Having recently adopted local rock veteran/recording engineer Jason Tedford (Bass) and virtuoso* guitarist Lucas Murray (lead guitar), The See now look poised to achieve national recognition. They are currently embarking on a national tour in support of their debut album Pretending and Ending and will be playing in major cities across the Southeast and Midwest. Go to http://www.wearethesee.com to hear their music and see when they are playing in a town near you.

That’s a little something I’ve written for us to send out to radio stations, promoters, record stores, etc. to maybe get a little extra press before we perform in towns in which virtually no one has heard of us. Honestly this tour is one huge sloppily-designed experiment, with us simultaneously testing the multiple variables of our stage-sound, crowd interaction, promotion strategies, bandmate relations, sleeping arrangements, meal plans and more. We are having to do a lot of improvising in all areas and are learning things on the fly. Despite the fact that we are navigating mostly uncharted terrain, I feel confident that this will be a fruitful journey because of the amount of effort and care that we in The See are putting forth. For instance, earlier today we started recording for an on tour podcast that we are calling “Get in the Van”. I’ve been a part of other groups and bands in the past that potentially would have had the great idea to start a podcast or some other side-project, but The See is actually doing it! To me this points to the story of this tour, this band, and this stage of my life: Not really knowing fully how to do something, but just freakin’ doing it anyway, because that’s the only real way to learn.

So last night we played the first show of our tour at a bar called The Nick in Birmingham Alabama. A brief synopsis: “The Nick” is one of the dirtiest, grimiest, grungiest dive bars I’ve ever been to. There were plenty of roaches running around, but they didn’t really even look gross because the rest of The Nick was so sticky with filth that the roaches looked at home and even sort of tame by comparison. The stage was spacious; the sound quality was low; there were very few people there and they didn’t seem all that into the music. As a result our stage energy was low and we gave a relatively mediocre performance (compared to what we have done in the past). Yet somehow we must have impressed a few people because we sold more than enough merchandise to get us to our next location: CHATANOOGA (Choo Choo)!

Today has been a glorious day in Chatanooga (a delightful and thriving town that I’d love to revisit someday). We got here early enough to take our time, pick up some groceries, have a picnic at a riverside park, play some catch, record our podcast, relax, and enjoy a traditional irish band at The Honest Pint. We’re just a couple hours away from our show at the rich woodsy-smelling and stylishly decorated beer bar JJ’s Bohemia and personally I’m feeling very good about this one…

*Yes I am bragging about this band, yes I called myself a virtuoso guitarist, no I’m not being humble! I’m trying to get people to put us on the radio. Sit on it.