Everyone’s got to start somewhere. Although it can seem like some acts explode from nowhere, coming to public attentions almost overnight, most bands do things the hard way: write songs, maybe even record them, and then get out and play. And it’s not so uncommon for some of these early gigs to be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
“We played a bunch of art spaces, around America, and called at South By Southwest, when we started,” says Cleveland band Cloud Nothings’ (pictured, above) Dylan Baldi. “At almost every single show, everyone left. We’d end up playing in this space with nobody in it, but we’d keep playing.”
“For our first two tours, we had shows that nobody came to,” Baldi continues. “But we had a good time. You just have to go with it – and if people are still there with you at the end, great! That’s all I need, really, is for one person to be into it. And when you’re right down there, playing gigs to one or two people, you can only have an upward trajectory. We’re still on it, I think.”
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Cloud Nothings, ‘I’m Not Part Of Me’ (live)
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Royal Blood, ‘Little Monster’
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Another band definitely on an upward trajectory is Brighton’s Royal Blood (pictured above, too), whose frontman Mike Kerr remembers well their earliest gigs to but a handful of punters, being as they happened only last year.
“Playing gigs when nobody comes, they make you properly think about why you’re doing this in the first place,” he says. “If you’re doing it because you want to be famous, because you want the applause, then you’re not in it for the right reasons – and, more likely, that just won’t happen anyway.”
He goes on: “We started for fun, and we played gigs with nobody there and had a really great time! Because for us, that was what it’s about: we enjoyed it! If it’s not fun, why are you doing it? People coming along is great – and the last tour we did was pretty much all sold out – but all of these experiences are vital. Get on with it. Play well enough and people will come.”
Such a positive attitude smacks slightly of the “book them, and they will come” mantra at the core of Wayne’s World 2 – and that almost went completely tits-up for the public access TV hosts as Pearl Jam and Aerosmith seem about to pull a no-show on Waynestock before the happy ending kicks in. But it’s entirely the right way to think, as after every downer can come the high kick back to a happy place, even if it doesn’t look likely at the time.
“It did get me down a bit, playing Glasgow to an audience where half the members were my mum and dad,” recalls The Twilight Sad’s (once again, pictured above) James Graham when asked about his band’s early gigging experiences. The Scottish widescreen-rockers had returned to their homeland after a rather more successful stint stateside.
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The Twilight Sad, live with the Royal National Scottish Orchestra
(This set can be downloaded for free here)
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“We set up a residency in a place in New York, called Pianos, and it was sold out every night,” says Graham. “It wasn’t like a big place. We came back from there to play Nice’n’Sleazy’s in Glasgow, and there was like five people there. It was weird – we were getting more attention over there, in the US. We didn’t plan it, but that’s how it happened.
“Even back then, though, we’d have a high after a low point, and see people liking us and showing their enthusiasm. And that’s what keeps you going. You need the downs to appreciate the ups. That’s a big part of what we’ve been doing over the past seven years, having the highs but being pretty grounded at the same time, and a reality check every now and again makes you realise how great things are going.”
Don’t give up, then, is the message to new bands following their dreams all the way to Derby, or Doncaster, or Derry, only to find that there’s half a rider, the backline’s not as previously stated, and the bar only sells Carling. Oh, and there’s nobody there to see you except the promoter, his grumpy girlfriend, her mate who’s got a thing for bassists (watch out), and, if you’re lucky, the other bands you’re playing with. Assuming they’ve not gone to a better, more populated bar while you’re on. They probably have.
But it’ll all be okay. Promise. Below, two frontmen of two hard-touring British bands recall their earliest experiences – and neither of these acts has done so badly.
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Alexei Berrow is the vocalist and guitarist for Birmingham-based quartet Johnny Foreigner. The band’s fourth album, ‘You Can Do Better’, was released earlier this month on the Alcopop! label.
“I wanted to write about things going wrong on tour, but honestly, we just laugh at such situations know.
“We’ve blown up all our amps inside of two hours, ripped the roof of our van and hidden from the cops in the bear-filled woods in the middle of America. We've been electrocuted, fallen into holes in the stage, had our stuff robbed from dressing rooms, played with broken fingers, been simultaneously assaulted and groped in our opening song, been ripped off by promoters and, once, bought a big bag of wet tissue paper that a friendly Toronto tramp assured us was high grade.
“We have cursed planes, trains and automobiles on multiple continents. We’ve danced on more hard shoulders than there are motorways, and we’ve slept in scary bedrooms, front seats, receptions, waiting lounges, platforms. Sometime we just don’t sleep.
“Being on tour is all about stuff going wrong and how you deal with it, and everyone’s tour stories are personal variations on the same time-honoured themes.
Johnny Foreigner, ‘Wifi Beach’, from ‘You Can Do Better’
“So I want to talk about this one night where nothing broke, in the hope that someone can explain. First time we were in Japan, in the summer of 2008, we landed jetlagged and bedazzled and ended up going out with some friends of our label boss. It’s good tourist fun, and we end up at a private party, in a disused retail space a dozen miles away from our hotel. There's people drinking and smoking, a DJ in the corner, it’s all pretty chill.
“Then this one kid strips down naked and lies down on a painter’s ladder, while his friends place cupcakes over his nipples and penis. On the stroke of midnight, all the lights go out, and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ starts playing insanely loudly and everyone starts singing along.
“The next couple of minutes are a pitch-black freak-out, illuminated only by the occasional camera flash, and when the song ends, the lights come back up and naked cake boy is dusting himself down and pulling on some clothes. I think his friends ate the cakes.
“This is normal. This is tour.”
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Gareth David is the lead vocalist for Cardiff-formed indie-pop outfit Los Campesinos!, whose most recent LP, ‘No Blues’, came out via Turnstile in late 2013 and is reviewed here.
“Riding on the back of our MySpace boom, our first tour was way more comfortable than a first tour is supposed to be.
“We were about six months and six gigs old when we travelled to London to play our first show outside of Cardiff. We’d just about signed up with our manager – the same manager we have to this day, so I guess we made a good choice – and he fronted the cash for us to hire a splitter van. A splitter van with a DVD player and cup holders in it, too – we were beside ourselves with excitement.
“We played at The Water Rats, initially intended to be main support, but word had got around of the deluge of London Industry Types who were headed down to cast judgement and snap us up. I remember spending time with Wichita that evening, who we were delighted to sign to soon after. Grandaddy had just broken up, and we were gifted oversized Grandaddy hoodies. Surplus tour stock.
“That night we drove out to the home counties for free accommodation at (former bassist) Ellen’s (Waddell) father’s house. Enough sofas or spare beds for us all, no sticky skin on laminate necessary.
“The next day, we headed up the M1, piloted by our friend, and filmmaker, Ryan Owen. We were incredibly grateful for his helping hand, but his driving, at the time, still brings night terrors. He’s more experienced in larger vehicles, now. We careened through the torrential rain, while DVDs of Family Guy struggled to be heard over the hail on our tin roof. We played the Love Apple, in Bradford, the first time the band had taken me to a city I’d not previously visited.
“Since there’s been Tokyo, New York, Sydney, Bogota, countless others… But none seem as significant as this Bradford show – if only because it was the first time, in lieu of us having actual merch, that somebody appeared at the gig with a homemade LC! T-shirt. The show was fantastic fun – evidence – and afterwards we headed back to Harriet’s (Coleman, formerly violin and keys) relatives’ home for hospitality.
Los Campesinos!, ‘Avocado, Baby’, from ‘No Blues’
“On to Manchester, where we were put on by the PopCult lads, fellas who have remained good friends ever since. We dealt with our first-ever live action guitar string break, and then our second-ever live action guitar string break, and support band Former Bullies kindly leant us the means to continue. We went out drinking until late at an empty indie club in Manchester, before heading to Winsford near Crewe where we stayed with Neil’s (Turner, guitarist) parents.
“The next day, as we drove out of the suburbs past kids on their way to school, we serenaded them over the van’s PA system with a rendition of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Close To You’. We were giddy the whole week.
“And then back in Cardiff again by the weekend. To the familiar surrounds of Upstairs at Dempseys where we played alongside our friends Little My and Shake My Hand. By now, memories are cloudy, but I do recall meeting Huw Stephens for the first time while I was led, exhausted, underneath a pub table, completely knackered from three consecutive days of shows. I’m very thankful that was only the beginning.”
Los Campesinos!, ‘You! Me! Dancing!’ live video w/ footage from the above-recalled tour
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As told to: Mike Diver