Three or four years ago, not long after moving to Los Angeles, Joel and I hiked to the top of Griffith Park, the mountainous island of a park that rises out of the vast urban expanse of the city. Joel pointed out to me, as we walked in the coming twilight, that the park possesses an eerie, intrinsic danger, being that it consists of thousands of acres of untamed, isolated wilderness, densely hemmed in on all sides by all the millions and millions of inhabitants of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. You just never know who you might encounter lurking in the shadows or around the next bend, it could be anyone. And now it’s just you and them.
When we reached the top of the park, however, and stood there quiet for a moment, overlooking the city, I noticed something I found much more palpably menacing about that place. From where I stood, I could hear a deep, pulsating, sinister drone emanating from the hazy, immense stretch of civilization below. From the top of Griffith Park, I could hear the sound of countless strangers, each one in search of their own success, love, meaning, and hope, all combined into one singular, dull, hypnotic hum—a drone that continues on day and night, day after day, year after year, combining into one the innumerable individual actions of each person, continuing on unceasingly and insensibly whether or not any one person ever finds what he or she is looking for.
“Los Angeles is full of crazy people,” we often now include carelessly when describing our experiences since we’ve been here, and it does seem a suitable explanation why, as part of our efforts to record and perform music for a living, we’ve done so many things so intensely bizarre and entirely unrelated to our aims. Like the time both of us, on a trip planned only hours in advance, accompanied an eccentric billionaire on a private jet to a newly bankrupt Iceland at the height of the global financial crisis, or the time I helped organize a faux congressional hearing in Washington D.C., funded by half a million dollars from a foreign oil-baron, aiming to prove once and for all the existence of extraterrestrial beings on planet earth.
While doing such things, we’ve been homeless or completely broke on multiple occasions, and have also been convinced several times that we’d finally achieved a level of success or stability from which things would flow easily from then on, and there would be no more need for a desperate struggle to reach a place where putting sufficient time and effort into on our artistic endeavors was possible. Yet, for all of this, after all of this, we now find ourselves back at nearly the very beginning, back where we need to start from nothing more that an idea, and hope against all reason that our efforts will come to something significant, something much more than nothing.
As we look back on the risks we’ve taken over the past several years, none of which have yet had the desired result, Joel and I have realized the frame of mind a person must be in to pursue significant accomplishments is definitely not a sane one. It seems person actually needs to be a little insane to even try. To forget that the senseless, anonymous drone will continue on with or without you, both before and after your existence, and manage to believe a vision of something more, something grand, something rare, and so risk your comfort, your safety, your future ability to pick up the pieces and try again, you’ve momentarily lost your mind, because you need to, because there is no other way.
Early this January, sometime after 3 a.m., alone in a rest stop bathroom, I walked along the wall of electric hand driers and, one by one, pressed each of the rusty metal buttons to turn each one on. A short minute later, when they had all shuddered to a stop, I did the same thing all over again. I kept it up for awhile. The unexpectedly deafening drone was vaguely unnerving, but my completely futile attempt to warm up the ice-cold bathroom before I took all my clothes off at least made me feel like I was doing something to improve my situation. Using the sink to wash up for the night also made me aware of something I hadn’t been aware of quite as clearly before — when you can’t seem to tell whether the water you are using is really hot or really cold, it’s actually really, really cold.
This past year, Joel and I drove over 44,000 miles, toured the country three times, and spent more than 100 nights sleeping in the back of our minivan. On tour, it’s the late, cold and lonely winter nights like these, after shows that we drove all day to get to, many attended by a mere handful of people, that we’ve found that it most strikes us that we must be either completely insane, or that there really is something that we madly, desperately desire.
This kind of desire though, desire that makes us willing to give up almost anything for what we are after, I have found to make, for both of us, a most wily, dangerous ally. For when I don’t want anything at all if I can’t have what I want, there is a jealousy, a lustfulness, an anger that lurks just beneath the surface, a force ready to destroy all I do have, all because I haven’t managed to transform it into the one thing I really wanted.
A little over two weeks ago, on a cold Saturday night in Rochester, Minnesota, Joel and I were loading our equipment out of the back of Kathy’s Pub, and as we walked through the patrons scattered in the alley, I suddenly saw someone I didn’t know, but who looked so hauntingly familiar that for a moment there was no way I could look away. When this person noticed me looking, he calmly gazed directly back at me in a way that I didn’t expect, as if the fact that a complete stranger was staring at him didn’t bother him in the slightest.
On our next trip by, I couldn’t help but look at him again, and when our eyes met, the subtle yet strange exchange that had occured moments before repeated itself, and if I had been uncertain that it had really happened the first time, there could be no doubt now.
At this point, Joel and I had already decided that we were going to leave for the night immediately after we loaded up, since we were both exhausted after performing and a long day of driving. So, when I saw him standing against the building as I walked back to the bar for the final time, I changed my course to go up to him, as I decided I couldn’t leave without at least talking for a moment with this mysterious and magnetic apparition.
In the few short minutes I spent talking with him, he was as welcoming as I expected, and I think I could tell he was generally good natured, but I couldn’t really tell much more about him before I inevitably had to ask him his name, say “nice to meet you” and continue on my way into the bar.
A few minutes later, Joel and I drove away into the night in our minivan, headed out on a search for somewhere to park and sleep that was in the direction of the next night’s show in Minneapolis. It then hit me that I didn’t even know for certain what this person’s first name was, much less his last name or any way of ever having a chance of seeing or talking to him again, and I felt a sense of loss and longing that was newly sharp yet at the same time completely familiar, for having been underlying my mood for months and months now, long before I had ever laid eyes on him.
Over the past several years, I have slowly come to the realization that there is a peculiar change that comes over the psyche of a person continually in search of an elusive happiness somewhere in the distance, and that I have become an unwitting victim of this change. Joel and I continually strain ourselves, put off rest and recreation, and pour our entire lives, energy, and hopes into making our music project into something with a future. As such, happiness and contentment always seem, for me, to be out there somewhere, like something I could never be good enough to deserve now, something reserved for daydreams and for someday in the hazy and uncertain future. So maybe that’s why this stranger in an alley behind some bar in Minnesota intrigued me so much. I don’t know anything about him, but he is familiar, not only because he reminded me of someone I used to know, but because he’s just another fantasy of beauty, happiness, friendship, or good times that I’m chasing but always seem to be too out of breath to catch. To me, he really is an apparition; it seems anything I want to be a part of my life can’t be real, can only be dream, can only be a ghost.
Tonight in rainy Ottawa, Ontario, though, in very real life, the tour continues on, as Joel and I follow through with the plan that will have us play one hundred shows in the U.S. and Canada during our first year performing together. Its been an exciting and enlightening year, but has also been challenging and, at times, quite frustrating and lonely. When Joel and I finally return to Los Angeles in January after having been gone for nearly all of 2012, we plan to pursue our goals as decisively and diligently as ever, but also hope to begin to live and make choices in a way that is in line with the truth that we can be happy and content wherever we are in relation to our goals or to other people, because everything that happens, whether it’s what we want or not, happens for a purpose, and that purpose is ultimately good, even if there is no possibility of seeing or understanding it from where we are.
Now six months into 2012, Joel and I have been out on the road a full three, and so have been spending most of that time sleeping in the back of of our minivan, eating out of a cooler, showering at YMCAs and truck stops, and, of course, driving for hours on end. And the reason for all this, our shows, although invaluable experience for us, have often been variously strange tests of keeping our cool and our sense of the importance of our goals in the face of getting paid less than we need for gas and food for the day, not sounding as good as we’d like because of the difficulty of dealing with a new sound engineer every night, and having to hope against all things reasonable that doing the same thing over and over really does start to get different results the longer you keep at it.
To add to this normal state of things, this past week or so, with a heat wave blanketing the country, we found ourselves making our long drives in 100+ degree weather with the air conditioning in our van only partially functioning. This made it hard to feel clean or comfortable during the day, or to sleep at night, as we also discovered. So, with this making up the greater part of our lives so far this year, the situation we found ourselves in a little over a week ago at The Violet Lights’ very first show in our hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin, seemed nearly some sort of magical alternate reality.
Thanks to our long-time good friend, amazing chef, and now restaurant owner, Christopher Mangless, our first show back home after moving to Los Angeles four years ago was a complete success, and honestly, the best time Joel and I have had in a long time.
The show was sold out days in advance (at $25 a ticket!), with dozens on the waiting list and being turned away at the door, and a completely packed house at show time. An unexpectedly abundant number of our friends and family came out, and seemed to genuinely enjoy the delicious gourmet food, the gorgeously renovated new restaurant, and our performance as well as that of Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons.
After playing so many shows at dank and dirty dive bars all across the country, to come home and present to our family and friends in such a quality way the project that we’ve been away working on for so long, was quite the heartening experience.
When the show was over and the crowd had all left, and we saw, to our curious surprise, Christopher and his kitchen staff clearing off a table only to set out an entirely new and lavish spread of food, desserts, and wine, the first thought that crossed my mind was that this must be the after-party for Cory Chisel and his people, and definitely not for Joel and I, and we should probably be on our way. I soon realized I was mistaken, though, as Cory hurried us along to our seats at the table.
Early one morning on tour this winter, somewhere between New York and North Carolina, while Joel was still asleep in the van, I sat alone on the cold tile floor of a rest area near a power outlet, as I did nearly every morning, sending emails. This morning seemed much the same as always, with a lot of emails sent to various people in the music industry, and not a lot of real reason, based on experience, to think I’d get many back, but nonetheless an endless swarm of new ideas and approaches filling my head, and an urgency to just send as many as humanly possible.
That morning, I was to realize over the next several weeks, was actually a bit more notable. One of those emails, as it happened, several more emails, conference calls, and meetings later, transformed itself into something that, because of how long we’d been in relentless, breathless pursuit of it, felt a bit surreal: a recording contract offer up for the taking.
After a final meeting in San Francisco at which we learned that this was the case, Joel and I stopped at a beautiful rocky beach on the drive back to Los Angeles, feeling, to say the least, quite pleased with the thought that all of our efforts over the years on the music project had not been for nothing, that we weren’t crazy to think that we could somehow find a place for ourselves in the chaotic and ultra-competitive climate of the current music business, and that we could look forward to exciting, productive times ahead. That afternoon at the beach we felt a lot different than we have in a long time.
In the end, a few weeks and several more conversations later, after much thought and some important realizations, we came to the difficult decision that the offer wasn’t quite what we were looking for. Overall, it was a roller coaster ride of an experience, and a bit hard to take, honestly. But still encouraging, nonetheless, that we have to be getting close.
As I write this, Joel and I are on a westbound desert freeway some 300 miles outside of Los Angeles. We have played the final show on our tour and are headed back to where we started from two months ago.
After being gone for so long and being so far away from everything familiar and everyday, both loved and despised, it feels a bit strange to know that tomorrow I’ll wake up in my bed and make some breakfast in my kitchen, just like I have hundreds of times before, rather than waking up in a van outside of some unfamiliar city where there is not much of anything for certain except that Joel and I will be playing a show somewhere that night.
With so much lead up, so many hopes and so much effort having gone into this tour, along with the uncertainty and upheaval that came with us refusing to back down from carrying out our plan to tour within a year of when we finished our EP, as it got underway it was easy to think that there was no need to worry about what was on the other side, since there was no way of even knowing what that could be, as if a huge black void, or the edge of the world, waited for us at the end of the tour. No matter what happened, I suppose I knew I was headed back to LA when it was over, at least for awhile. But now as we drive closer and closer, I feel strangely scared, for the first time ever, perhaps, of everything the city of Los Angeles has become to me, and wish that right this moment I could more definitively say that in the semi-imaginary battle between Joel and I and the city of Los Angeles that we had emerged victorious.
All of that aside, this tour has opened doors for us that seemed quite hopelessly locked just a few months ago, and we already have another tour of North America in the works for this summer, so I’m sure we’ll soon be so busy working on what comes next that I won’t have much time to be nervous.
So here you are, more photos from The Violet Lights’ 2012 North American Tour… part I.
Near midnight on January 22nd, Joel and I quietly drove out of Los Angeles, headed north for several hours, and around 3 a.m. parked at a nondescript rest area somewhere along the coast of central California.
Our plan as to where we would sleep that night, as well as most other nights for the next two months, was in our sleeping bag in the back of the minivan. Now a month into the tour, the feel of this has become quite familiar to me, but that first night I quite suddenly became well acquainted with what it would really be like, and I was, a bit unexpectedly, struck by just how vulnerable to the elements I felt and just how much more difficult it was than just sleeping indoors. Suddenly my worn-out mattress and junky studio apartment back in warm and mild southern California seemed like some faraway haven of comfort and relaxation.
That night the rain poured down in a relentless torrent even before we stopped for the evening and didn’t let up until well into the morning. A chill wind whipped the rain every which way and made any attempt at staying dry quite impossible. This was less than ideal, because before we could crawl into our sleeping area under the wooden equipment bay Joel had installed in the van, our gear and supplies needed to be nearly completely rearranged from driving mode into sleeping mode, and that had to be done in the pouring rain. The bathrooms were nearby, but unfortunately they were not heated and were open to the gusts of cold, wet wind. Thus washing up for the night and trips to the bathroom were something to get over with as quickly as possible and could not be done without getting quite cold.
Since that night, and as we have traveled further north through Wyoming, Colorado and the like, and rain storms have turned to blizzards, we’ve made a few additions to our supplies to make things more comfortable, including two more high-tech sleeping bags and some hiking-gear base layers. Also, much to our relief and extreme delight, rest stops in areas where it gets below freezing in the winter are heated! And some actually have hot water, too. So, since then we’ve been able to stay quite warm at night, with the only really cold part being when we need to be out of the van.
Standing in stark contrast to the cold weather, however, and even more delightful than heat vents in rest stop lobbies, has been the reception from the fans at our shows. There hasn’t been a single city we’ve played on our tour where we haven’t encountered fans excited about our music, people eager to tell us how much they enjoyed our show, or complete strangers who generously shower us with encouragement to continue on. And continue on we will.
Joel and I have just left Seattle, and with two shows already in the books, the tour that has been six months in the making is now officially underway.
And although this tour, at first, was nothing but a thought without any plan to make it real or any reason to think we could actually pull it off, bit by bit it has become very real indeed. For us, however, making something real always involves an amount of hard work, time, and persistence that is nearly all we have, as well as willingness to put almost everything on the line.
To leave on this tour, we’ve quit our jobs in Los Angeles, rented out our apartment, sold our car and bought a van, got rid of our remodeled rehearsal space, sold as many of our other possessions as we could, and scrapped together funding for a not insignificant amount of equipment, merchandise, and promotion. We will be gone for a full two months, travel the entire country, and most of the time, the van will be our home.
We have some reason to believe that all of this will take us to a place we want to be, which is to be working on music full-time like we are right now, but of course there are no guarantees.
One thing that is certain is that it will be quite the adventure.
Packaging promo CDs to ship to NYC
Spray-painting stenciled designs onto our clothes
Scrubbing the bathroom floor before showing our apt., visiting the Genius Bar to get our laptop functioning
Last minute equipment and merch purchases, shipping back 1 of 2 malfunctioning keyboards
Empty boxes used to ship us posters, buttons, t-shirts, gear cases, guitar pedals, CDs, jewel cases…
Fixing a flat tire on our van and replacing missing lugs only a few days before we left
Washing and vacuuming the Ford Escort before selling it
Buying lumber to build sleeping/equipment compartments in the van, building a pedal board
Last week Monday was a day that Joel has very much been looking forward to for the last three months, if not years, really. It was his last day at his office job here in Los Angeles before we leave on our our very first tour in late January. Ironically enough, with less than three hours to go, he suddenly fell ill and spent the rest of the day throwing up, some in the restroom, some on the floor…and some behind the bushes in front of the office. (You can ask him if you are wondering exactly what chain of events led to that, haha.)
Ever since October when we found out that the tour we’d dreamed of going on could actually be a reality, we’ve been been compiling an ever-growing and now quite sizable list of everything that needs to be accomplished before we go. And last week was to be when we would finally be able to start on it in earnest, since we’d both be working full-time on the music project for the first time ever.
But, alas, what was making Joel ill turned out to be a bad case of the flu, and by the next day I had it too. On top of that, our only computer stopped working again, depriving us of even movies and music to distract us from the fact that we couldn’t get anything done. So all last week, the amazing new efficiency we’d been dreaming of was just a day dream as we both lay in bed in the quiet green haze of our apartment.
Fortunately, we are getting close to being recovered now, and so ordering merch, renting out our apartment, getting all our equipment working, promoting the tour, and rehearsing has all begun, and just a week later than planned. I doubt that most people would think of sleeping in a van for two months during the winter as a great way to rejuvenate if you are feeling run down, but for us it may be just what we need.
The Violet Lights play their first show in over four months tonight, and I can’t deny I’ve been hoping that it will go amazingly…and perfectly.
But, as usual, what’s real is much harder to control than I’d like. Just a few days ago, my keyboard basically stopped working, and when it will be ready to use again is most definitely not going to be tonight. So, I’ve been busy figuring out how to use a different keyboard that will be adequate but not ideal, and Joel and I are working on figuring out a way to get mine working or replaced without breaking the bank.
On Saturday, the repair shop we visited in Culver City, huge and potentially spacious, was quite the sight, messily filled to the brim with thousands of pieces of musical equipment in various states of assembly and complete disassembly. But Joel told me that how bewilderingly disorganized the whole place appeared was in fact a good sign in regards to my keyboard actually getting fixed. He said he has always had better luck at shops that looked like this one: they are so chaotic because the owners are so focused on getting their customers’ equipment working that they don’t bother making sure their store appears perfectly in order.