Blood Witch Tour Days 11-17: Flatter Than A Pancake, Middle America Heartache
The middle of Vajra's #bloodwitchtour (both literally and geographically) has been an insightful look into an American lifestyle that feels like the bread and butter of our country, even if the bread is at times a little stale. Contrasted with Southern California, middle America feels a bit culturally stagnant, an unfair comparison to be sure. This is a land of industry and hospitality. The vibe here is actually quite similar to the rural areas I grew up around in Montana: people are friendly and practical, and have a unique appreciation for music. This has made for some rewarding shows with extremely appreciative audiences.
Our first stop in "middle America" was in Arlene, TX, where we had a radio interview with Frank Pain on Rock 108. Frank was an effusively complimentary DJ who seemed to have a true passion for music and his job. The walls around us were plastered with signed posters from hard rock bands who had been in the studio; names that left me feeling nostalgic for my high school years.
We played a few tunes on air acoustically in the studio (a format we've been exploring a lot), and one track was played off of our record Pleroma. Somebody even came down to the studio just to buy a CD during the show; that's some old school music promotion right there!
In true tour fashion, we pressed on to Houston immediately after the interview. Here we were lucky to be put up for two nights by bassist Kevin's father and mother in-law: Kenneth and Elané. The timing of being in an actual home halfway through the tour could not of been better. On top of the incredible hospitality we received (we were greeted with beer and pasta), we also got to sleep in, do laundry, and spend a day relaxing; an amazing break from the grind of the road. Thanks so much Elané and Kenneth!
After sufficiently freshening up, we packed up and headed in the direction of the Acadia Bar & Grill, the venue for our gig that night in Houston. The Acadia was a bit of a dive, but a cool venue all in all. The other bands were quite good: Theory of Thieves had a polished hard rock sound that I immediately identified with; Oceans Ego sounded very progressive with constantly shifting odd time signature interspersed with heavy riffs. The light show was also incredibly professional looking, and we later found out it was upwards of 100 grand worth of equipment.
While waiting for our set time at Acadia, I had the opportunity to grab dinner with an old friend and his family: Eric Rokohl, his wife Jesica, and their daughter Olivia. Eric and I were both percussion majors at the University of Montana; he focused on music education, I studied performance. Despite being a few years younger than Eric, we were roommates my second semester of college when I decided I couldn't stand the dorms: I don't know how he put up with 19 year old me! We also played drums together in The Loud Mouth Brass Band, and ended up both serving separately as assistant band director at Hellgate High School (under Leon Slater), my alma mater. Eric and Jesica moved to Houston, TX after finishing up school in MT, and Eric is currently assistant director of bands at C.E. King High School in Houston. Their three year old daughter Olivia is a firecracker, very sharp and witty, and they've got another one on the way! So great to see you Eric, Jesica, and Olivia!
The Acadia gig was fun despite a few sound issues (an unfortunate thing due to the live broadcast by Reach Down Radio) and some other nearby shows affecting our turnout. We found out soon after arriving at the venue that christian metal band P.O.D. was playing in Houston, and heavy metal band Lamb of God was playing just down the street. Damn! The next night we played another metal bar called Tomcats West in Fort Worth, TX. Upon arriving at the venue, I showed my old ID to the sound guy/door man who said, "Montana huh?" It turned out that this guy, Nolan, was from Kalispell, MT, a two hour drive from my home town of Missoula. We most likely played each other in high school soccer matches, and had a mutual drummer friend in Kelbee Sweedman, who I went to college with. Now he was helping with my monitor mix in Fort Worth, TX; small world stuff! Despite being a Friday night, this shows turnout was also affected by, you guessed it, Lamb of God playing in nearby Dallas. We couldn't escape! Nonetheless, we all had a ton of fun making music that night, maybe the most fun of the tour to date. As bassist Kevin Jones keeps quoting: "Five or five-hundred, play like there are five-thousand." Some aspects of the industry are out of your control, but I am truly of the opinion that if you prepare to the best of your ability and play your heart out on stage when the time comes, the rest will take care of itself.
The next day we drove to Wichita, KS to play The Lizards Lounge, getting closer to the true geographic center of the country. The landscape, as you might imagine, was flatter than a pancake,* and I found my mountainous Montana interior becoming a little depressed. The venue, as you might imagine, was a total dive, with country and hard rock alternating on the jukebox. My Montana interior now felt at once home. The story at The Lizards Lounge was similar: an appreciative Midwest audience and fun times had playing music; so much fun in fact that I split my finger open hitting the rim of a drum in a moment of passion! The sound here was quite good thanks to a collaboration between our kick-ass touring sound person, Tina-Vega-Chris (she goes by all three names), and the house guy at The Lizards Lounge, Nate Roy. Nate is a Wichita-based sound engineer/drummer (I swear 90% of sound people are drummers) who is another example of someone that gives me hope for the industry. The guitarist from the first band that night informed us that Nate was the best sound guy he'd ever worked with, and it showed. Chatting with him afterwards told the same story. As we chatted generally about the industry, he said something deep along the lines of, "Whether I'm playing music, or doing sound, I take a great deal of pride in my work. If you don't give it your all, why do it at all?" Yes Nate, yes.
To catch you up to now, the last few days have felt like a bit of a blur. We arrived on Sunday in Hutchinson, KS, which makes Wichita seem like the cultural center of the world, and Chicago seem sheltered; damn it was windy! We took the day off on Super Bowl Sunday, because god knows nobody in Kansas wants to see music when the Super Bowl is on! Monday consisted of a radio interview at KJAG and an acoustic gig at The Rusty Needle that night. Same story here: small dive bar with a very sweet, appreciative audience. Tuesday was mostly a repeat day. Lots of driving across flat-ass Kansas, and a radio interview at KJML 107.1 in Joplin, MO. I did find the more eastern parts of Kansas to have a beautiful serenity to it that I hadn't noticed in the Wichita area, though personally I still couldn't imagine living out there! That serenity quickly left as we entered Joplin, which had remnants of destruction from the 2011 tornado that leveled the city, killing 150+ people, injuring 1000+, and causing around $3 billion in damage. Yikes!
The interview in Joplin was with DJ Muttley, who had some interesting thoughts pertaining to the current state of the music industry, something that really seems to be the theme of this tour. He compared it to the radio industry, in that both of them seem to have less and less potential to make money, especially for people who refuse to fit squarely into the mainstream. I'm simultaneously inspired and depressed by what I've been learning. It seems more and more as if the only way to make a career out of music these days is a grass-roots approach, and even still the actual concept of making money is a bit of a mystery. Thinking about the fact that the career I have chosen to pursue, the degree I have earned, is one that still has no guarantee of being my livelihood can be a little discouraging. But when I look at the bands that are doing it, I'm nothing but inspired. Some of my favorite bands like Snarky Puppy and Lettuce, started out with an entirely grass-roots approach, and have kept that mentality throughout their development as a band with one common thread: hard ass work, and a true passion for music. Time to shed!
We are super stoked to play these last few gigs of the tour, and I will do my best to document the end of the #bloodwitchtour! Thanks for reading!
*After googling the expression "flatter than a pancake", it turns out that science has actually proven this to be true, though Kansas actually isn't even in the top five flattest states in the country.