Monthly Archives: February 2008

Yucca Valley

For now, what happened in the desert stays in the desert. Except…

Saturday night, outside the coffeehouse it’s raining but the moonlit sky seems clear. It’s weird; where’s the rain coming from if there aren’t any clouds? Then we see it: the dark silhouette of a rainbow shape, set against the blackness. It seems impossible but all four of us see it and we aren’t stoned yet.

Here’s the proof we aren’t mad: it’s a moonbow. How blessed we are this night.

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day 7

In the morning we find ourselves in The Automatic‘s studio, thumping something with a drumstick and singing ‘gang’ back-up on a rather pleasing rock tune with an excellent chorus. I’m almost too late to join in because collecting the video camera took ages but in the end we roll up just in time and walk into a friendly session, with the track sounding hot.

This HD video camera we’ve got for the forthcoming desert weekend is obscenely good, it’s £5,000-worth (or something) and apparently passed a comparison test amongst a bunch of film experts, up against pro movie cameras, which sounds nuts. Hopefully we’ll get good live footage then. The idea is to shoot for a short “Frank’n’Chris in the desert”-type doc, plus as much gig and acoustic session stuff as possible and even some scenes for a possible pop vid. Hopefully it’ll be turned off, if we get high!

Next, we drive out north-west up the 101 to the opulent SoCal heaven that is Santa Barbara. Halfway there, a white sports-car about 3 cars in front actually spins out on the motorway. Everyone dives across lanes, desperately trying not to hit the emergency-braking cars ahead of them. Miraculously nobody crashes at all. The two Paris Hilton types in the car just get going again, as if nothing happened. Reminds me of the time Rifa somehow steered around a rolling tyre on the M23 at 85mph – like in moments of high tension, peoples’ reactions just get much faster.

We go on the Santa Barbara pier, which is big enough that cars drive down it. At the far end there’s no fencing, just an unnerving open space where you’d fall in the sea if you trip over. We’re playing with the camera and early signs are footage will be awesome, if I can avoid constantly shooting irrelevent things like the side of the car on the freeway.

The Muddy Waters Café is another charming indie coffeeshop space (like some of the earlier gigs I didn’t write about) and when Frank gets up, it’s already rammed (another scarily young, well enthusiastic and open-minded crowd). Tonight there’s us, then a local band (intriguingly named after the Donner Party) with a cool poncho guitarist (who was in the audience at another of our gigs) and a singer looking all pretty, a bit like Robin Bennett from Goldrush. Anyway, Frank’s on top form, does another absolutely fiery set – his new songs are building a lot of momentum and there are so many lines to die for. I join in for an electric piano solo on ‘Nashville Tennessee’ (where my kazoo solo should be, except we can’t find the kazoo).

Buoyed by Frank’s work, I enjoy my set too. There’s no pressure on us to be quick, so we do roughly 40 minutes each. Our four new Isle Vista student friends (who took us out for dinner and a smoke by the sea – and showed us their classic American college campus) have been driven up for the gig by ringleader Matt and get there just as Frank starts – it’s cool they came because they’re friendly faces in the crowd to aim your singing at, once you get going. Really helps, actually.

Afterwards, our hosts make me a big sandwich and coffee and I retire to the backyard to eat and chat with more new friends. At the end of the night, we’re given more free coffees and pastries for the journey home. Tonight was a masterclass in treating visiting artists well.

Driving back down the coast, oil rigs out at sea light up the horizon. We’re going to Joshua Tree National Park this weekend, so I’ll save further comment til we come down.

day 6

Three truly great gigs, one not-so-great gig and one shite gig down. For me, the posh Italian restaurant in Sherman Oaks was dreadful, then Oxnard last night was OK – for Frank it’s probably the other way around.

Last night we played in a retro diner in an old Woolworths building in Oxnard. It has a Woolworth Museum with tons of 30s-50s memorabilia, very parochial, well sweet. Best thing I noticed was an original ‘sidewalk surfboard’ but I forgot to get a photo – luckily we’re back there next Wednesday, so I’ll snap it then.They had boardgames so we played Jenga and the excellent Fact Or Crap!

A week ago there was a school shooting in Oxnard and a boy was killed, and it’s a small town so the place is still reeling. I didn’t want to compromise what I played but it’s tricky to balance violence-imbued songs like ‘This Gun’ with an audience who lost a young community-member.

We’re trying to swap kazoo solos but I’ve got the better end of the deal so far: in Sherman Oaks I blew up a storm on ‘Nashville Tennessee’, but last night Frank blew on ‘7 Hearts’ which was well annoying for him – just to stand there and play the rif every so often. Need to find him a raging solo but that’s not easy in my stuff.

We end up back in L.A. at a small pub in Hollywood for Frank’s friend Matt’s birthday. I get to meet some of The Automatic, who are out here trying to finish their 2nd record – sounds like they’re missing Cardiff and their girlfriends. Really sweet.

btw, FT “slagging it up worldwide” fans, deal may have been closed last night, I’ll find out later and let you know if I’m allowed. Talk about living vicariously through someone else’s naughtiness.

now I know the way to san josé

We’re driving up the I-5 to Sacramento today. Right now actually*, listening to hip hop and Radiohead while I type in the front seat. If Stephen crashes, this laptop’s going through my head.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the flat agricultural America and this is probably the longest flat, straight road I’ve ever travelled on. Miles and miles of farmland, vineyards and enormous cattle farms. It takes several minutes to pass each distressing ocean of crammed cattle, even at motorway speed – and the smell is overpowering. There are moments of real beauty: orange groves interspersed with beehives, soft hills along one side of the road, hawks sitting on treetops. But most of all, that rare sight of a flat land stretching so far that it hits the horizon like it’s a sea.

If they’re carrying chemicals, large trucks have a bucket hanging off the side, with a big sponge. On one is written: “Spillage Response & Defence Kit”. A bucket and a sponge.

We were ripped off about San Jose in the song, it’s easy, you just go up the I-5 til a junction says ‘San Jose right’ and that’s the way. Dumb.

Just ahead of us, a cop just swung his car off the road and piled across the grass, wheels squealing, dust everywhere, bumped onto the opposite lane going south, where a chase is on. Awesome!

*obviously that’s not true. I’ve been behind in blogging, writing them in Word and posting later, which is probably terrible blog etiquette. But now I’m trying to catch up by posting several blogs each day.

Day 3

Something moving happened today. Every week down on Santa Monica beach they set up a temporary war memorial, placing lines of wooden crosses in the sand, one for each US soldier killed in Iraq. These are the white and red ‘graves’ I photographed last year, for the sleeve of ‘This Gun’. It’s called Arlington West. So you have a sea of these crosses along the beach, plus several stalls giving information about the war. People go to look and protest and some go to personalise a cross for their lost family member.

Anyway, we needed to give the organisers some copies of ‘This Gun’ to show them and say thank-you. But, when I did, these people – who are dedicating their lives to highlighting the cost of war (not to mention helping people grieve) – acted as though I’d done something amazing, supporting their cause. It was lovely but it was weird though, I felt so undeserving and almost fraudulent, having just used their imagery for my artwork. It was just a powerful reminder.

When you travel around the US, especially through smaller towns, you do feel the place is ‘at war’ in a way the UK isn’t. You know, posters on fences welcoming home individual troops. That sort of thing.

settling in

Day 1

I’m vaguely to get up and do a short slot tonight at Safari Sam’s but, to get out of it, explain I don’t want to take time from Frank’s set and excuse myself from performing. Really can’t be arsed to sing after the flight!

In a rock shed on Sunset, Frank’s first set is a bit Uncle Floppy but his second set rips it up, it’s like he remembered what he does, while the bands either side of him are dismal. You can see the crowd totally refreshed by what he’s doing, being so un-muso and telling his stories. Upstairs, at the back of the club, there’s a photographer with a box of costumes, so Frank and me pre-empt tomorrow’s proper photoshoot and play dressing up. Everyone’s settling in, building our schedule and getting relaxed.

How come nobody can play drums in L.A.? They’re so damn busy making sure their hair looks cool, poking out under that baseball cap, they forget you’re actually supposed to hit the drums, not just pat out a rhythm. It’s fucking soooo dull! Only Mike G is decent – a proper addled sticksman – though he’s a jazz-tinted dude and doesn’t rock in the rock sense.

That night, we’re back in the 101 Café with Stephen, Jane, Dani R and Ben, the Independent journalist. It’s fun rather than business, which is ace, though the 101 is rammed and service isn’t as good as usual – the waitress says, “Sorry guys, the kitchen is a mess tonight!”

Frank and Charlie went drinking. One of Frank’s US label women took a shine to him but wouldn’t close the deal after driving him back to the motel because her boss had warned her off. Poor guy! Telling us the story the next day, someone (Dani I think) describes it as “taking a shining to him” which sounds way cool.

Day 2

Up early. Pick up the gang from their motel on Sunset, with its swimming pool in the parking lot. Lunch is takeout from the Brite Spot, eaten as a picnic in Echo Park, while I do my half of the Independent interview. It’s far too much food. We’re on the grass. We tried to sit on a bench but got chased off it by a homeless dude, shouting: “This bench is for the homies!”

Rachel does her photoshoot by the pond, with Downtown in the background, and by a wall with a cool sign falling down above us. But I brought the wrong t-shirt and I already know it’s going to be tough, straight after lunch. Frank and me together is like Twins. Fuck it, I’m hating photos worse than ever, despite gradually losing weight – except when I snap myself and I think they look better but nobody else likes them.

I’m trying a new beard style, growing an actual shaped beard for a bit to see if I like it instead of the messy goat

At the Viper Room we play in the small bar, which is well busy. Johnny Depp’s not there and the opening act is a Latin funk-soul guy but it’s good to get onstage and the sound is nice. The promoter hands me a whisky every 10 minutes, which starts to add up. Great, fiery sets tonight and I explain to the Americans what a ‘comeface’ is.

Later we cross town to Spaceland in Silverlake, to see Liam Finn and, out of the blue, he’s absolutely flaming brilliant. It’s a duo – Liam on instruments and a woman called E.J. playing percussion and singing back-up. They build up layers using live looping pedals – but there’s no hint of that hippie trance shit that normally comes from looping onstage, it’s raw psych pop with a melodic punk edge, so he kicks in with an aggressive 4-chord electric guitar rif, then adds a bass part (using a pedal that briefly turns his guitar into a bass), then (all the while singing the song and looping backing vocals as well) jumps on the drumkit and pounds shit out of it for the climactic jam. It’s outstanding, a lot of the time it honestly sounds like whole kick-arse band, piling into the song. Usually live looping, spells the end of any songwriting structure because they just build but Finn uses drop-outs and possibly even two sets of loops to make the choruses work.

I try to tell E.J. afterwards how good they are but it’s like I’m talking to Stephen Fry, I just can’t get the words together, it’s like I’m trying to ask her out. I’m drunk.

flying Virgin

I gave Virgin Atlantic a second chance because the film selection is so good and because I have fantasies about being in their Upper Class Club or whatever it’s called. Last time, they gave us vegan options instead of the veggie options we’d pre-ordered – and acted snotty about it – but I slightly thought Rifa had ticked the wrong box (or secretly done it on purpose so we’d eat healthier), so maybe it was worth another go. But no, it’s them, I was super-careful but they’ve got some internal communication fuckup about the meals. It’s complicated because everyone on the flight gets a veggie option anyway (until they run out) so perhaps if you pre-order anything, they get offended.

It’s a noble cause but you can’t imagine anything more heartbreaking than vegan aeroplane food. No puddings, for a start.

They were snotty again, too, after plonking the wrong pile of raw veg and (euch! euch! euch!) bulgar in front of me – and wouldn’t let me have the normal veggie food being offered to everyone else. How stupid to care enough about veggie food that you pre-order, only to lose out to people who’re only eating veggie because they “don’t like the smell of the beef”.

I had to wait and see whether there were any veggie meals left after everyone else on the plane had been fed. Finally, I was given a cold “premium economy” mash potato, with the cabin crew acting like they’d done me a favour – but where were the peripherals?! It’s all about the cheese and crackers and… where was my fucking pudding? That’s now three Gü puddings Virgin Atlantic have ripped me off of in six weeks.

Anyway, later on they offered everyone a hot wrap and I had the spinach and ricotta – finally something nice to eat. Later still, I was given a cold dry salad wrap when nobody else was eating and, although it looked a bit euch, thought “Finally, I’ve got a bonus, I’ve got the vegan wrap as well as the veggie one,” so without thinking I ate it. But two minutes later the trollies rolled out and I realised I’d eaten my vegan “light meal” and would miss out on the veggie one, which was delicious looking sandwiches and a chocolate fucking cookie. Can you feel my anger? I tried to hide my tray and all the accoutrements down the back of the seat but the woman knew I’d been ‘fed’ already and wouldn’t give me any sarnies. Then I was going to bleep them and demand the chocolate cookie but I realised the sweet old lady two seats from me had left hers and, if I tried to ask them, she’d immediately offer it to me, which would defeat the object, so I gave up and landed in Los Angeles cookie-less.

I’m cancelling my meal booking and, flying home, I’ll deny any knowledge of pre-booked food and refuse the tray, if they try to throw fruit salad at me. Then I’m going to ask for extra everythings, bleep them every hour, and see what happens.

Watched Michael Clayton, it’s a slow burn but punches you hard, Clooney is quietly brilliant and it feels so real, even as it veers towards being a thriller. Also watched the I For India doc, which Rifa recommended, and it’s this beautiful, sweet film built from 30 years of home movies made by an Indian family, some of whom came to the UK in the 60s. They kept in touch by sending video and audio tapes. It really brings home that central heart-rending dilemma about missing family/home but not knowing where life will be better. I don’t know where you’d find it but see it if you can.

When we landed I was bricking it about coming through security, so I waffled buckets of ludicrous shit rather than being cool and remembering what I should say. Couldn’t’ve been more stupid, yet they just let me through with just raised eyebrows. Also I brought Sarge some coffee and on the customs form it says foodstuffs like that are illegal (actually the lines are blurry between what you can and can’t bring). I ticked the box that said no foodstuffs, then ridiculously wrote the coffee down on the other side of the form as a declared gift! There was no time to redo it, so I crossed my fingers and handed it in… and they didn’t notice, or didn’t care, so that was cool.

Meanwhile Ben, the Independent journalist who travelled out to do a feature on my tour, told the exact truth about why he’d come and got detained for 3 hours.