TOURING: Vök, Winter 2018
On the day everything broke...
I was stood beneath a railway bridge in East Berlin, guiding traffic whilst Andri, the saxophonist, changed a tyre on our van. Useful as little more than a human bollard.
On the day everything broke I fruitlessly searched for a roadside spot for Einar to charge his computer and take an important call, cursing the burned out power transformer. He worked on, from the road.
On the day everything broke I stood helpless as Margrét comforted Bryndís on the phone, after she missed her connecting flight and was stuck in Oslo. Unable to offer meaningful, calm, support and empathy in another language.
On the day everything broke I repeatedly apologised to the promoter for the broken bottle and backstage argument that I'd been oblivious to and unavailable to help with.
On that day, with the sneaky speeding ticket and last minute in-ear monitoring replacement. After the wrong tech spec (Despite numerous confirmations to the contrary), the missed calls home, shattered suitcase and slow puncture, I suggested we go to Burgermeister at 1am and it was delicious. More importantly, I never felt alone.
A successful band and crew. One that repeatedly tours in a small van for six or more weeks at a time and still exists, or even talks, possesses a delicate and utterly intriguing blend of characters, skills and quirks. Having stuff in common is mostly over-rated. Gimme sweetness and brutal truth, affirmative action and careful consideration. Veganism and meat eating, fashion taste and tasteful nudity, open-minded discussion and complicated in-jokes. Spas, gyms, cakes, ice tea and hot coffee. Intermediate or above ping pong proficiency is appreciated. There are other successful groups, but none remotely similar to this one.
This was my second epic road trip with the Icelandic, electronic pop group, Vök in the space of one year. Everyone took part. I tour managed, drove and took all these photos using my Onki 336 compact camera on 35mm film. That's only important because each pic had just one chance and hasn't been edited. Real life is significantly more wonderful than internet life. Click on the pics to see them without the text. Hope you're into it.
As each night ends I see somebody tear off and throw away their AAA pass and I tut. “You might regret that when all the days have blurred into one and you’re having a crisis about what you’ve done with your life”, I say. Not out loud of course, they’ll figure out their own way.
I’m a tour life crisis survivor who goes out of his way to keep physical notes of every show, hotel, restaurant, cafe, moment of enlightenment and especially good or interesting person I come across. There’s no time to write as I go, so how else will I remember?!
I secretly file things away, so people don’t think I’m crazy. My posture deteriorates as my backpack sinks with the weight of colourful memory cues (And regional marzipan treats).
After a few days of thinking about things that aren’t tour, I tip the file out on my desk at home and try to cut and arrange the pieces into a picture that might be fun to look at even if you weren’t there. It’s more difficult than you’d think. How many ways can a crumpled, neon wristband be reimagined?
Don’t answer that.
I think I’m making progress. Here’s my Vök tour collage. It features (Amongst other things), a frog from a picture frame stock photo that replaced the merchandise price list whilst I figured out the correct currency conversion and wrote it really neatly, a loyalty card for a Munich döner shop, an @auderauder chocolate wrapper, a nice note from the lady who’s house we stayed at in Zagreb (Best spot in the city, DM for details), an apocalyptic Paris postcard, a strange Polish tally system and the tag from my first pair of Dr Martens since retiring my goth look, circa 1999.
Takes you back, doesn’t it?
16, 8, 4, 2, 1... I'm back, from six and a half weeks of touring around Europe with Vök.
An alarm sounds in the auditorium. Don't worry, it's part of the show. Unless you were in Cambridge and then it wasn't part of the show, but I'll get to that.
Backstage the four band members, bodies contorted to our tour van's optimal 'lounge' positions, begin their pre-show ritual for the twenty-ninth day, waving their weary limbs as though shaking off a month's worth of cold, rainy days.
I may have spent the afternoon in this Copenhagen basement counting change in the seven different currencies we'd used up to that point, but I still can't count to sixteen, or any increment thereof, in Icelandic, which proves a coolly effective excuse for not taking part.
"Wait, I'm really good at this", says Einar softly, through a crafty grin. He hands me his bag and starts rooting through his pockets for change.
It's Paris rush hour and we're on a sparsely populated carnival island, surrounded by gridlocked traffic, in the rain. Literally no one is having a good time. Einar, though.
He lowers his tall, strapping frame onto the counter and calmly takes aim at the balloons. They dart around, erratically. The stall operator stares at his phone.
Five shots... five resounding hits. I've never seen skills like it. Nobody else even notices. I wonder for a moment if I'd be good at this game, but I've never fired a gun before and I don't care to, so it doesn't matter.
Satisfied, he stands tall and selects his prize from the back wall. The options aren't great. "This will be good for backstage" he states as he's handed a miniature dartboard by the entirely unmoved operator.
None of us are good at darts.
Upon arrival at our Antwerp hotel it's immediately apparent that something is awry.
The street out front is gone. Where it was is now a vast, yawning hole, stretching the entire width and a few hundred metres in either direction.
Peering inside, I can see the bowels of the city's sewage system, though apparently they've yet to reach the desired depth. We know this because the oversized industrial drill positioned directly outside our front door is in full, unforgiving flow.
The receptionist winces as we enter.
It could be the intollerable volume, or the fact that the ground is actually moving beneath her feet. It could be the earth-shattering lie she's preparing to mouth. "They usually start between 9 and 10am". Hard to make out.
I'm troubled by an unusually irritable group message from our sound engineer, Teitur that reads, "There's a standing 94db tone in our room, I'm not even sure that's legal." He's in bed wearing ear plugs and heavy-duty noise cancelling headphones when I abandon dreams of a night's sleep and stomp downstairs at 7am to lodge a complaint.
There's a curious void behind the reception desk.
I'd been looking forward to Sopot. The relief of knowing how to be polite to people in their own language.
That, and the completion of back to back drives and shows from Munich, through Zagreb, Budapest and Brno, to Poland's premier beach resort, in a steady -12°c and snow.
Proof, if needed, that that isn't healthy, arrives in the form of our frontwoman and sole vocalist Margrét waking up with no voice.
I spend our morning off in a queue for drugs at the Apteka, brewing tea, ordering and delivering food and generally fussing. Cancelling is not an option.
Being at the seaside and not having a walk on the beach is also out of the question, so with thirty minutes before load-in, I slide the steep, icy steps and fight the driving wind, set the Onki 336 to self-timer and put it on a fence post.
Running to get into this shot I'm acutely aware of how absurd I look.
I turn to see an old Polish lady on the path watching me. She approaches as I return to collect my camera and asks if I'd like her to take the photo.
I smile and say, "Nie, dziękuję.”
Being on time to van call, though certain to win my favour, rarely works to anyone's advantage. The first person to open the sliding door to the carnage in the back of a two-week deep tour van cannot unsee that sight, nor unsmell that smell.
You take a moment to consider your options, realise that you have none and ready your fresh fingers for the task of putting the nastiest items, once considered 'food' or 'drink' or 'clothing', into bags. You literally despise all of your friends.
It doesn't stop there. A successfully sterilised bus is not a permit to simply litter last night's host city. "Where do people put their trash around here!" you cry.
In fairness, lots of people do appear to put their trash on the street.
I know where the bins are but ask Margrét to hold on for just a few seconds whilst I capture the very essence of bitter dissatisfaction with life choices, at bitter 9am, in bitter -9º, during an average-to-bitter Warsaw winter.
Then I help, I promise.
Ten days into her first ever tour, Guðrún was ready to go home. That's normal. Being in a small moving box, without privacy or personal space, surrounded by the emotional and physical baggage of five other people whom you barely know, is different from playing music. It's testing, even if you're the most natural entertainer on the planet.
Which Guðrún isn't, because that's Toni, owner and head chef at Gyoza Sake Bar in Zagreb, Croatia.
We arrive in the city and all go our separate ways for a little breathing space. Thirty minutes later I receive a message from Guðrún, it reads "I'm 20m from the apartment at Gyoza, sake on the house, owner loves Iceland, I might stay and get drunk! I'm saving the last bite for you because this food is insane."
I abandon my lonely snow walk.
Before long I'm eating a second delicious, delicately prepared homemade meal, listening to Toni's tales of Icelandic road trips and Japanese cuisine, Croatian tourism and English words, drinking the finest sake (On the house). I'm pretty sure they were supposed to close an hour ago, it's as though Toni really loves his job.
In that moment Guðrún and I realise that we love our jobs too, you just need the feeling of home occasionally.
A Mexican restaurant in Europe, much like an English breakfast in Poland, is done wrong 100% of the time. That doesn't necessarily mean it tastes bad, but its ability to call itself as such is frequently called into question, throughout the experience.
There isn't an official league table for the worst offenders, but 'Tres Amigos' of Winterthur, Switzerland is actively pushing for the play-offs.
We had an evening off before the last show with our friends and support act, Auður and with the town fully booked for a carnival weekend, our restaurant options were limited. A family meal among the buddhas and pirates, the pyramids and conical hats, the elephants and lions and the pumping Euro-dance of this well-situated 'Mexican' joint seemed to offer something for everyone. Everyone.
Except maybe Mexicans. Looking around the room it appears likely that the Mexicans wisely went elsewhere.
Fry-up traditionalists heading East this summer are advised to do the same.
I walk back into Bernie's house in Manchester for the first time in six or seven years, as though no time has passed. Renovations are in progress but the vibe is unmistakable, it's haunted by cool.
Bernie is the most interesting and industrious woman. Welcoming, generous and passionate about music and musicians. She knows hard work and she knows how to hang.
Teiture takes me to one side and whispers "Do you think it would be appropriate for me to take a bath?". I'm not surprised, he's a considerate man who loves bathing.
Bernie's slightly surprised but not especially concerned. Even ten minutes later when, with an air of quiet focus and determination, he asks "Would you mind if I boil the kettle a few times?" and I sit in the corner shaking my head despairingly, she remains unmoved.
He doesn't want a cup of tea.
It takes ages to leave the next day. Sweeping every room on every floor to find the ones who got too comfortable and repeating endless thanks and 'til-next-times. As Bernie paints the guttering on the side of the house, Teitur climbs the scaffolding and waits.
He knows how to hang and he knows how to make hard work of it.
"Quick, help me with this table".
OK, it's a lightweight desk at best and it tapers considerably at one end, but if there's one thing I learned in maths it's that setting your net nearer the wide end will make things fair and fully compliant.
Teitur just ordered a pancetta pizza at reception and we're listening to dark, industrial techno on computer speakers. The lamp makes an excellent floodlight and the bin on the shelf adds a new dimension (A shot for the bin will result in instant victory or instant defeat, success depending.) Everyone's invited. It's a tournament.
Bologna had been bleak. Dark grey and damp all day on the drive down from Northern Switzerland. Dark grey and damp inside the venue. The staff did little to add warmth to the proceedings and the audience embodied Monday night on the other side of town.
We'd all but wound down when, on our return to the hotel, the receptionist denied us access to the games room saying it was for student residents only. Not young or studious enough, eh?
Backed by knowledge that Einar’s recent interest in miniature sports "for backstage" had not wained, despite the darts disappointment, a new found determination for playing ping pong took hold. We constructed a court and didn't let up until the early hours.
Shout out to our student neighbours. No matter how relentlessly noisy and weird our party was, they respected the autonomy of our games room.
A gluttony of guilt and worry and administration gets backed up out here, on the long tours. You try so hard to avoid it but you know it's coming. It's the Antwerp ring road. There's no other way around.
You have to believe.
There'll be an afternoon in the future. With a clean, clear desk and a strong wi-fi signal. In a quiet, backstage room, bright by natural light. You'll arrive early, fill your lungs with plant-purified air and with calm, purposeful order, put loads of pieces of paper into neat piles.
You'll type words and numbers into spreadsheets and clear your email inbox to zero. People will ask questions and you'll know the answers, without looking.
You'll brew ginger tea using fresh chopped ginger and eat chocolate biscuits followed by the vegan option on the menu. The fridge will be fully stocked with Club-Mate.
On that day you'll rise from your reclining office chair, select the self-timer function and break out the broadest smile. File that pic somewhere hard to find, so you won't be disappointed if it never happens again.
Here I am in the middle of Antwerp. It may be faster and easier to go around, but sometimes it's healthier to go straight through.
Like kids up past their bedtime, Guðrún and Margrét sneak downstairs from the green room and gaze in bewildered horror towards the light in the back room. A seven-piece twee-indie-folk support band.
The promoter leans over and assures me there were fewer of them in their Facebook picture when he booked them. Sometimes you need to know when to stop digging a hole.
Vök is tired. Stumbling into our seventh week and onto the stage in Cambridge, we could probably do the show in our sleep were it not for the fire alarm that sounds three songs into the set and doesn't stop, shutting down all the power, on and off stage.
A helpful audience member loudly discusses why all bands should have acoustic guitars. He, like the opening act, means well but is at the wrong show. It's all irritating.
In adversity, Teitur always shines. He dons his head-torch and the crowd parts. Five minutes excavating in the broom cupboard and we have no alarm, followed by light, sound and a newly discovered energy in the room. The show becomes one of the best of tour.
A timely wake up call, helped in part by a group of twelve, excitable archeologists currently working at a site nearby. Lead by a friend of Einar and determined to have a good time, they knew when to stop digging a hole and came to the right place.