I hadn’t been cramped in the back of a van since age 14, when I fibbed to my parents about going to Power Chord Academy, a pop-punk summer camp for tweens. I ran away to Warped Tour to volunteer with PETA 2 — much cooler and edgier than the adult, red-paint-throwing counterpart. I didn’t have a reason; I wasn’t the strictest vegan. I just wanted to be around bands, a groupie without sex, getting to know creative strangers through proximity.
Writing a tour diary is something of an antiquated rite of passage. Most publications and writers can’t afford to have their Almost Famous moment. I wanted to do it, and with anyone.
I emailed Alanna “Lan” McCardle of Joanna Gruesome with “A Proposition” (an inviting enough email subject line.) We’d met once before, briefly, both immediately intimidated by each other. I think a hug was exchanged, definitely a beer. A good way to get to know someone is to force yourself along their journey.
Meeting a band for the first time is nothing and everything like a first date. Conversations over food are a delicate process; for one thing, both parties have to be comfortable enough to chew in front of each other. For Joanna Gruesome, this was never a thought. We were going to be fast friends, somewhat out of convenience, mostly out of necessity. Living with someone for a week in small spaces you have to create a rapport that makes sitting in silence comfortable.
The band arrived at my front stoop without having slept, giant bags in hand. Someone asked what day of the week it was. It was Monday. I took them for Mexican food. The lads in the band eventually went to sleep and Lan and I stepped outside for a final beer and cigarette.
“It’s funny how quickly you figured out my boys.”
Immediately after spending time with Joanna Gruesome, you realize a lot of their power comes from their distinct personalities. They’re all very charismatic and very unapologetic. They’re the kind of personalities that audiences and critics alike tune in to, but don’t necessarily recognize or articulate.
In the van, Owen Williams, the quiet leader of the band and its main songwriter, sits shotgun, reading, only entering conversation with purpose. He’s the kind of guy people spend their lives trying to become, and others spend even more of it trying to figure out.
Nicholls introduces himself as Greg — you’ve got to earn his friendship to deserve use of the informal moniker. He’s the loudest of the band.
Max Warren and Dave Sandford appear to be slightly quieter, a lively pair. Dave is the only gent in the band in a committed relationship, a trait he and Lan share.
I head to work while Joanna Gruesome spend the day skating their way from pier to pier. When I meet up with them, it’s at their first official New York City show since their brief CMJ stint in October 2013.
Lan is possibly the most honest person I’ve ever met, the kind of honest that doesn’t hinder on showmanship through experience. When she shares, it’s with purpose. When she smiles, it’s with her whole mouth. On the first night of the tour, her only request was to be louder — “more anger in the monitors.” Her only stage banter was to tell the audience to cool it when a dude-centric pit broke out.
“I think Lan is excited to have another woman along for the ride,” Dave shared with me later that night. “But I have long hair, feminine qualities.”
The band played the DIY space Shea Stadium to a sold-out crowd eager to embrace the English act as their own. New York has a grabby, vulgar personality; we like to take, and we are often the first to call ownership. Joanna Gruesome are the kind of band that will have none of that.
Onward to Boston.
A five-hour journey somehow manages to take us seven. In that time, we have the only sing-along to Unrest’s “Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl” in which I’ll likely ever participate. Nicholls remarks, “I lifted the riff for ‘Secret Surprise’ from this song.” Unsurprisingly, it’s my favorite on their debut record from last year, Weird Sister. Questionable band name aside, the album is loaded with strong, bruising indiepop that will crush your skull.
In the van, we play “Conceptual Food,” a game born out of boredom. Players are given two letters — let’s say F-B. One is the food, the other is an adjective that makes the food conceptual. Think “flying biscuit,” or “floppy borscht.” (You could pick three letters, but then you’re just being an asshole.) It’s more fun than it sounds, and much more fun when trapped in a van.
Our driver, Bobby Burg of the tour’s opening act, Love of Everything, explains the layout of Boston in the most non-American and accessible way possible: “It’s like a bunch of towns, lined with other towns.” We drive through Harvard’s campus, and I hear someone in the van call a shoeless Ivy League bro a “wanker.”
We arrive at the Sinclair, which is vastly different from Shea Stadium. We’re told the sound system brings the quality of a 5,000-capacity room to a 500-capacity room. The venue has a bar attached, and is located on the same block as roughly 70 ritzy restaurants — plus Starbucks as far as the eye can see.
Despite all of this, the show was the worst of the tour, and not because of the band’s performance. At one point during the set a man flails, striking a woman hard on the face, knuckles first. Her cheek gushed blood. Lan immediately called him out and gave the girl a shirt and $40 from their merch sales to pay for her cab to the hospital.
At the end of the night, Lan is in tears. The most frustrating part was the excuses from other attendees: “Everyone else was great.” “Everyone else was having a good time.” Even Nicholls’s attempt to soothe her couldn’t help, because Lan is a born empath. She wouldn’t rest until the woman was taken care of, and everyone was knew exactly what was wrong, why it was wrong, and the correct way to deal with it.
When the dust settles, we decide it’s time to get drunk. Nicholls is underage. We spend most of the night hopping from bar to bar, getting kicked out of each one. Max sells us with, “bouncers love me,” (has anyone ever found that to be true?). We end up at the famed Great Scott and down multiple picklebacks. The rest is a blur.
The quickest way to get to our nation’s former capital is to drive through the heart of Camden, New Jersey. Nicholls broke the tired silence, “I hate this bloody road. So grim.” He wasn’t wrong. Every other storefront was abandoned or foreclosed. Two minutes later, we’re navigating West Philadelphia’s gorgeous colonial architecture.The band will play the First Unitarian Church, a downtown punk staple and the hottest place on Earth.
“This is the smelliest I’ve ever been,” Owen said, “I have no idea what to do with myself.” And commence waiting.
After the show we head to “Bathhouse” in Philadelphia, home to most of Swearin’, Radiator Hospital and other Salinas Records bands. Here, all four bands on this tour stay together, drunk and loud. There are beers on the porch, and the British band’s first exposure to Kyle Gilbride of Swearin’s infamous marijuana vaporizer (it’s massive, looks a bit like the memory erasing device from Men In Black and, I’m told, has the same effect.) I’m starting to think our livers will never forgive us.
NEW YORK (again)
Lower Manhattan has a gross fascination with counterculture. Get a bunch of young kids with guitars and a keen sense of melody, put them in the heart of the Financial District, call it a summer jamboree. Today, Joanna Gruesome play at the South Street Seaport in front of a crowd of Wall Street men relaxing on bean bag chairs, and amid a small village of chain clothing stores. The stage is massive, the sound is great and the wind from the East River makes the performers seem uncharacteristically majestic.
“We’re happy to play next to our spiritual home, Abercrombie & Fitch,” Lan says to the crowd. The set is short, adequate, and after a few too many free Brooklyn Lagers we pile into the van and back to my house.
And that’s where the real heart-to-hearts go down. “I started playing violin when I was 5,” Dave tells me, curled up on broken lawn furniture in my backyard. “I was about 11 when I discovered heavy music. Kiss, Led Zeppelin. There’s no violin [in those songs], so I picked up guitar.” Owen shares the fact that his dad is the guy Mark E. Smith wrote the Fall‘s “New Puritan” about. He was in the band Puritan Guitars and ran the fanzine “After Hours.” Lan gets two stick ‘n’ poke tattoos reading “Living Proof” above each knee to signify the importance of her existence, and “Objectify Men” on her left ankle, at my suggestion. We were supposed to get matching ones but I opted for another beer when it was my turn.
“What’s a corn dog?” Lan asks on the drive. “We call them battered sausage.” At this point, I’m used to all the British-isms.
We’re the last band to arrive at Washington, D.C.’s famed Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel. The venue is set up like an Escher painting, staircases leading left and right (I accidentally walked outside on more than one occasion) and is situated across the street from some of the most depressing liquor stores I’ve ever seen.
For days now I’ve been trying to convince Lan and Meredith Graves from Perfect Pussy to do a song together — when they first met, they imagined themselves something like twins. “We had the same haircut. We even have the same tattoos.” Instead, Lan joins Perfect Pussy on stage to take lead vocals on “IV.”
After the show, a member of Perfect Pussy comes into the green room, frantic. “A bouncer told [Potty Mouth's] Ali she was going to get raped.” Without hesitation, Nicholls runs down to the front to confront the man, disgusted.
Near the end of Joanna Gruesome’s final set, Lan walked off stage and brought her hands to her lips, as if to ask for a kiss. Her face was vacant. She was heading for a cigarette. I followed her through the loading area, past the backstage, outside into the alley. She was nowhere to be seen. I shed a tear. A bouncer interrupted to make sure I wasn’t smoking a joint. He looked at me, clearly stoned himself, and said, “It gets better.” I’m not so sure it does.