The brief was both simple and deliciously enticing. Get on board a state-of-the-art tour bus and careen around the country with a bunch of DJs and techno producers. Take some photos, write down some notes, and make sense of the touring machine. Travel some 9,000 miles, visit almost 30 cities, hear some of the best dance music around. Oh yes, and get paid. Where do I sign?
I first met the bus at Revolution HQ, a few miles south of San Francisco. It’s a beast of a vehicle: 45 feet long, 12 feet high, 12 sleeping berths, two lounges, a kitchen, two CD players, DVD, video and satellite TV. It’s worth $600,000 and is shrink-wrapped in bright yellow with the words “Revolution” emblazoned across each side. It’s both strange and comforting stepping on board, knowing this will be my home for the next five weeks. Brimming with both excitement and trepidation, I feel like a little kid being dropped off by his parents on the first day of school.
Fittingly, Darrell, the driver, is the first person I meet. He’s been doing this touring malarkey for the past 17 years, for everyone from Teena Marie to country rock bore Kenny Logins. His soft New Orleans brogue is comforting: whatever else may happen on the tour, I can be sure we’ll get from A to B in one piece. Then the other members of the tour – none of whom have met before – gradually come into the picture. There’s tech-house duo Swayzak (James and Broon) who’ll be performing live at every gig; two guys from Mixman who’ll be demoing their music software in the clubs; another two who’ll be doing the visuals; and a tour manager. The DJs (Stacey Pullen, Robbie Hardkiss and Juan Atkins) will join us at various points throughout the tour. Everyone is friendly, if a little cagey. But the realisation that we’re all going to be pretty intimate for the next five weeks has a remarkable levelling effect. On the bus there’s no place for a hierarchy, no room for egos. It doesn’t matter if you’re the DJ, a member of the band, the merchandise guy, the person who works the lights or just the penniless journalist – we’re all equals. We claim our coffin-style bunks and get ready to roll.
Driving down Highway 5 to Los Angeles in a bus makes us feel invincible, like we’re being escorted in an armoured personnel carrier. Naturally I start the tour with the best of intentions: Read a half dozen thought-provoking novels. Eat only health-conscious food. Give up alcohol. Soak up the cultural highpoints of each city. Meditate on the romance of the American Road Experience. But although it’s all rather new and exciting, the boredom of road travel soon becomes apparent.
We haven’t gotten halfway to L.A. before we’ve put aside out good intentions and settled into our bad old ways. On come the no-budget made-for-television movies, out comes the cheap booze, and junk food. Our books slowly gather dust at the bottom of our suitcases. (Someone even brought The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare with him – it remains unopened to this day.)
It’s surprising how this state of affairs transpires so quickly but there’s something so hypnotic about the slow grind of the bus. It doesn’t matter if you’re Motley Crue or DJ Nobody, there’s no escaping the fact that travelling across such a great expanse as North America is going to involve a heck of a lot of sitting around doing nothing, staring out of bus windows. And tinted windows at that, so you can’t really see the sights roll by.
The tour was designed to ease us into things, so the first few gigs – San Diego, Austin, Atlanta, Miami – are fairly spread out, allowing us plenty of time to amble across the country. The drive through Texas is long, dry and energy-sapping. Miles and miles of tinder stick desert, so hot even the vultures seem to have taken a day off. The only other fools out in the sun at this time of day are legions of grizzly truckers, similarly dazed and confused by the relentless magnitude of it all. A few of the trucks up ahead on the freeway swerve from side to side, their drivers nodding off in the heat of the midday sun.
And that hits home the fact that out here, in the blazing sun, it’s back to basics. What’s socially important, the cut of your jeans or whatever, doesn’t matter here. People just care about getting water and getting out of the heat. The landscape feels apocalyptic, like the end of an age. But then again, we are driving through the hottest part of the States during the hottest part of the day. In the middleof summer.
Atlanta is the first truly rocking gig. Held at the Nomenclature Museum – a club that resembles a converted Victorian house with décor by a bunch of crazed psychedelic painters – it’s one of Swayzak’s strongholds. Their records are in all the stores, gig flyers are everywhere and people come out in force to show support. Atlanta is also the third gig we’ve all done together so by now we’re laying down our routine. We can set up the gear, do the soundcheck and grab something to eat in no time at all. Things are running smoothly, just the way they should.
However, the seemingly endless travel on the road begins to take its toll. You feel like you’re cocooned, like you’re travelling in some sort of tin can space satellite. You get on the bus at ten in the morning and then enter this sort of state of suspended animation for the next eight hours. You loll around the lounge trying to snatch a few minutes of sleep here and there before the jolting of the road wakes you up again. You look at your fellow travellers with glazed eyes, never too sure where you are or what time it is, like you’ve been drugged or taken a few slugs of whiskey. Eat, sleep, read, watch movies, get drunk. It’s like prison but with alcohol.
Inside the bus, the inter-personal dynamics begin to develop. By week two people band into certain groups. As everyone seems to have a digital camera, it seems like The Real World without the expensive make-up. These factions aren’t pitted against each other – it would take more than five weeks for that to happen – but certainly some people bond more closely than others. Being the journalist is a curious position to be in. Some people clearly think it’s a writer’s job to misquote people and generally spread disinformation, so they’re pretty evasive in my presence. Others, though, realize journalists are good listeners and bounce ideas, thoughts and feelings off me. I feel like part-Devil Incarnate and part-Agony Aunt. I develop a remarkable ability to cat-nap at the drop of a hat. I’m soon one step removed from being a total narcoleptic, only opening my eyes when we roll into the next truck stop.
The truck stops actually provide a welcome respite from the monotony of the road (the bus may hold 150 gallons but only does five miles to the gallon – so we get at least one stop a day). Whenever we pull into one, we all crawl out of the bus looking totally dishevelled, blinking in the harsh sunlight like we’ve been living underground for the past decade. Halfway through the tour I know the layout of the truck stops by heart. They’re all home to the same selection of CB radios (yes they do still exist), oversized checked shirts, and moldy sandwiches. And for some reasons the stores are always out of cream cheese and onion Pringles. Bastards. Compared to the gnarly old truckers who crowd the aisles (they all seem to sport a standard road uniform of too-tight denims, pot bellies, facial hair and bad mullet haircuts), we must look like we’ve just stepped off the catwalk. Or a Martian spaceship.
By now, we’re used to the looks people give us. For some – especially those living in the outback towns – the Revolution bus is the brightest thing to enter their lives in years. We give guided tours to interested ravers and hold numerous after-party sessions on board. And people like to rant about their local electronic music scenes or their own bizarre clubbing experiences. One waiter starts gushing forth with a slew of drug anecdotes. Apparently he likes to cover himself in peppermint lotion and stand in front of a fan while high on Ecstasy. Another time he “was at this party and I’d done six hits of acid and this DJ came on and just blew my fucking mind.” No shit dude. You’re talking at a hundred miles an hour about hydrophonic weed, psychedelics and spreading the trance gospel in the Bible Belt. I think we worked the mind-blowing bit out for ourselves.
As the tour progresses, the gigs get more frequent. Our lives begin to settle into a familiar pattern: sleep, travel, truck stop, more travel, gig, sleep, travel… Of course, there’s always the danger that the road routine and listening to the same DJs and same live acts night in night out can get boring. And the truth is that on occasion it does, especially at the gigs that don’t go off as expected. Electronic music is all about a synergy betweendancers and DJ and when they’re faced with a lame crowd it shows in their faces, their music and their performance.
Take the gig in Philadelphia for example, held at a warehouse-cum-clubspace on the outskirts of town. There can’t be more than about 50 people there, milling around the club in over-sized pants and hoodies, absent-mindedly waving glowsticks. Sure, they’re all dedicated ravers (and doubly so seeing as it’s a Sunday night) but performing to such a spartan turn-out is demoralising. Stacey Pullen even goes so far as to say it’s one of the worst gigs he’s ever played – and he’s been DJing for over ten years. Back on the bus the mood is grim, everyone realising it’s been a duff show. Visitors to the bus looking for a raging after-party are swiftly sent packing. We just want to sleep, pull out of town and head on to the next gig.
Still, the good gigs more than make up for the bad ones. They become like safety valves, welcome chances to let off steam after being cooped up like chickens for days on end. The shows in the latter half of the tour – in dance music heartlands like Detroit, Chicago, Vancouver and Portland – rock the hardest and we all feed off that.
When Swayzak and the DJs fire on all cylinders, when they respond to a crowd’s enthusiasm, then it feels like some sort of communal transcendence, like everyone in the room is part of one big living organism. I get to know their sets inside out, recognising the precise moment when Stacey Pullen is going to drop that killer house dubplate or when Swayzak are about to cut the beats out and surf on a swell of bass. At the Portland show the crowd are crammed onto the dancefloor, lapping up Swayzak’s tech-tinged beat odysseys. Taylor and Broon are beaming huge smiles, confident in their ability to take a crowd to a euphoric state through the power of their music. And as Pullen closes out his turntable session he’s so overcome by the crowd’s whooping and hollering that he drops to his knees in thanks, drenched in perspiration. It feels like we’ve just completed some intense shamanistic ritual.
Since this is the final week of the tour, everyone is feeling a little bit frazzled. It’s cabin fever, a combination of the mind-numbing repetition of the road, and umpteen nights of hard partying. And it’s all compounded by a final week schedule of six gigs in seven days. By now we’re caning it until seven every morning, fuelled on cheap vodka and Rolling Rock (who as one of the tour’s sponsors gives us an endless supply of the stuff). It’s small surprise that nerves are a little frayed.
And then all of a sudden, Blam. It’s over. Finished. Ended. Finito. Even though the last date of the tour has been etched in all our minds for weeks, we’re still not quite prepared for it. I’m flooded with a mix of emotions. Sure, I can’t wait to get home, to a decent bed, to my friends, to the bright lights of city living. But there’s also this niggling feeling at the back of my brain that I don’t really want it to end. I’ve just travelled 9,000 miles with ten people who started off as total strangers but who I now regard as family. I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad, to laugh or cry.
And although the after-party for the last gig in Portland rages well into the wee hours, there’s no one big send-off for everyone. Everyone just drifts away to catch their flights, to do their own thing, to get back to their own lives. What was it again that Charlie Brown said in the very last Peanuts strip? “I hate goodbyes. Why aren’t there more hellos?”
Re-acclimatising to “normal” life is challenging. I’m mentally and physically drained. Although it has taken its toll, road life is also remarkably simple and now I have to do things like pay bills, make my own bed, talk to my housemates, and cook my own food. Things I’ve had nothing to do with for 38 days. And even though I’ve seen sights many Americans won’t get to see in a lifetime, I know deep down that that I’ve only scratched the surface of this bizarre country. For surely as TS Eliot once remarked, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
A few days after the end of the tour I speak with Swayzak to see if they, like me, are struggling to make sense of it all. Broon reckons you should “never share your bunk with a stranger” while Taylor says his perception of America has become fuzzier. The tour has only reinforced his misconceptions. So I ask him to sum the tour up in a sound. “Distortion” is the reply. Quite.
Swayzak beam live and direct from Planet Braindance. They make techno and house infused with an extra-terrestrial dubwise lilt, where the space between the sounds is as important as the sounds themselves. And when you first listen to one of their records, you’ll scratch your head wondering why their music hasn’t come into your life sooner. Swayzak are an Englishman and a Scotsman, James Taylor and David “Broon” Brown, both now based in London. With albums like “Snowboarding In Argentina” and newie “Himawari”, they’ve been at the forefront of the burgeoning tech-house scene, rinsing out tracks full of echo-driven basslines, crystalline rhythms and deep smooth synths. Unlike most electronic bands, Swayzak play completely live and don’t just trot out the same old tunes tour after tour. In fact, the music they concocted for the Revolution tour – harder and faster than their album material – was all brand new. Some tunes were created just a few days before they left the UK and a couple even on the bus itself. This way they can tweak their set according to the crowd’s reaction. “We always do this,” explained Taylor. “People come up to us ask us to play the old stuff but we just say no. DJs buy new records for their sets – we create new tracks. There’s no point in just recreating the album – the crowd demand something more.”
In all honesty, if it wasn’t for Juan Atkins, you probably wouldn’t be holding this magazine in your hands right now. He was playing techno when most of its current practitioners were playing in the schoolyard. Feeding off the urban decay of his native Detroit, Atkins – under his Cybotron moniker – fused Euro synth-pop with gritty urban funk in the early 80s, in the process paving the way for the sound that now underpins almost every strand of electronic dance music. Far from resting on his laurels (most technoheads just call him “The Godfather” these days), Atkins continues to forge ahead both as a DJ and producer, rinsing out ice-cool electronica under the Model 500 moniker (check his Deep Space album for a master-class in rarefied electrolysis). In person, Atkins is reserved to the point of bordering on cagey. He’s a man of few words, especially when he has a basket of his favorite fried chicken wings in front of him. At the end of the day, he’ll let his music and DJ sets do the talking. On the turntables you’ll hear filtered disco loops as much as you will angular beat science – but that just illustrates how Atkins is still making connections, still viewing the bigger picture, just as he did some 20 years ago. The word you’re looking for is “respect”.
Stacey Pullen is a second-generation Detroit techno producer, grounding his heavy grooves with a rounder, heavier African vibe. Inspired by local techno legends like Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, Pullen’s reputation as both a blinding DJ and innovative music maker has grown immeasurably since he first dropped tunes at underground parties over a decade ago. The reason Pullen is so in demand in both the US and overseas is that he connects the dots between house and techno with a consummate ease. It’s mesmerising watching him DJ, zoning out as he lays down a succession of percussive, tribal, tech-tinged grooves, always pushing forward-thinking sounds but always with one finger on the funk. Behind the decks he’s part hyperactive kid, part Zen Master, working the mixer to the max when he wants to but also leaving a record well alone when the time is right. Throughout the tour we made frequent pit-stops in record stores to stock up on vinyl – but not Pullen. “Why buy more when I already have a bag of great records? I know I’m going to play every record in my bag.” Be sure to check his recorded output under aliases like Bango, Kosmic Messenger and Silent Phase, and on his record label, Black Flag Recordings.
The spiritual brotherhood of Robbie, Gavin and Scott Hardkiss has been flourishing in San Francisco since the early 90s. Whilst all three are producers in their own right (check the Delusions Of Grandeur album which compiles much of trio’s solo output), it’s been Robbie who’s forged the reputation as a kick-ass, funkalocious DJ. He plays deep house with an oomph, dropping in Left Coast-style breaks, funky techno and cool disco when the vibe demands it. It’s a psychedelic funk style that owes as much to live, traditional music as it does electronic, futuristic sounds. More importantly, it’s a style that makes Hardkiss damn well near unique. On the production front he recently teamed up with SF’s DJ Laron as Boozy & Swan (www.sunburn.org) to release the 70s-meets-80s-meets-90s house rumbler “Champagne Beat Boogie” and with junglist WishFM to form what they called America’s first electronic supergroup. The name of this outfit? Pipe Bombs 4 Crack Heads. Only in San Francisco.
Seven Tour Stories
Detroit: Submerge Records
Submerge may well be the coolest – if hardest to find – record store on the planet. Operated by legendary techno recluses Underground Resistance, it’s tucked away in a run-down building in one of Detroit’s many urban wastelands. Although you have to phone someone who knows someone to make an appointment to visit, the hassle’s certainly worth it. We were greeted with racks of rare and rather brilliant techno 12-inches, many of which aren’t available outside the city, or even the store. There are iron bars on the doors, graffiti from DJ legends like Juan Atkins and Richie Hawtin adorns the brick walls, and there’s just one turntable to test out your tunes. But we still dropped the best part of 400 dollars and left grinning ear to ear. Why? Because we are techno disciples and this is our Mecca. Go make the pilgrimage yourself.
New York City: Swayzak’s Video Shoot
Michael Jackson spent about six trillion dollars on his last video. Swayzak, meanwhile, had precisely a hundred bucks, a couple of borrowed digi-cams, and techno’s DIY attitude. James Taylor and David Brown took one afternoon to shoot the video for their new beatbox-rocking single, “Mysterons”, on the streets of NYC, home to the most photogenic streets in the world. They surreptitiously hijacked plazas, sidewalks, subways and basketball courts, filming a trio of local breakers and body-poppers busting out some rather fine bone-twisting moves. Various office types, builders, cabbies and bemused passers-by gave us strange looks (one guy was even convinced Taylor was Moby) although the only hassle from the police came when they said we couldn’t sit down in Rockerfeller Plaza. The final edit promises to be interesting, to say the least.
Vancouver, Portland, Boulder & Detroit: The best gigs
There were 20 dates in all and some were undoubtedly better than others. But what makes a good gig exactly? It’s a combination of factors really. In Detroit we were blown away by the knowledge of the crowd, packing out the city’s legendary Motor club for the family Tuesday nighter. Many were there for Juan Atkins’ homecoming gig (who relocated to Los Angeles last year). Atkins had missed May’s gob-smacking Detroit Electronic Music Festival and this was his chance to make it up to the kids. And make it up he did. But what else do you expect in the birthplace of techno? In Boulder – at the small but perfectly formed Soma club – the kids were young but enthusiastic, jacking hard to Swayzak’s techno biorhythms. The night was called Insomnia – rest assured the party carried on well into the wee hours. Vancouver’s Sonar club had the most rocking dancefloor judging by the gurning fools down the front. And Swayzak’s performance in the intimate upstairs room was so hot and sweaty we thought we were in the middle of a Turkish sauna. And Portland – the final hurrah – was a blast, a final release for everyone after the pressure cooker insanity of five weeks of touring. The crowd at club Ohm responded to that energy and by the end Stacey Pullen was on his knees behind the decks with arms out-stretched, caught up in a turntablist trance. A sight worth the price of admission alone.
San Diego: Robbie’s lost record box
It’s the ultimate DJ nightmare: the airline has “misplaced” your record box. It’s like a painter losing his favourite brushes. Or a master onanist losing his penis. Anyhow, Robbie Hardkiss – who had just flown in from New York – was minus his box. It’s not just any old record box, mind, it’s a lifetime’s collection of classic house cuts, incredibly rare promos, specially-cut dubplates and once-in-a-lifetime remixes, most of which have been deleted and are irreplaceable. At a gig the previous night in LA, he had to play with the resident DJ’s tunes. “That was a weird one,” recalls Hardkiss. “I’ve played on crap sound systems and to poor crowds before, but never with someone else’s records. I just had to play tunes by recognising labels and names.” As it transpires, Hardkiss plays a blinder in San Diego with a half dozen promos he’s just picked up and a few other tunes begged and borrowed from kindly passers-by. Meanwhile his box eventually turns up three days later, in Bumfuck, Ohio. Next time, says Hardkiss, he’ll carry his own cases.
The Canadian border crossing
Squelch. Can you hear that? That’s the sound of that Mountie over there pulling on his rubber gloves in preparation for the full-scale cavity search he’s about to conduct on you. To be honest, travelling around in a bright yellow tour bus with words like “music”, “Revolution” and “DJs” emblazoned on the side isn’t exactly the best way to slip across the border unnoticed. We might just well have walked up to the border with big signs round our necks declaring “We are subversive music radicals on a mission to brainwash Canadian youth with a concoction of booze, drugs and repetitive beats. Would you like us to bend over?”. As it happens, there were no cavity searches – which disappointed at least two members of the bus – and an hour’s paperwork later we were through. Of course, we had the pleasure of doing it all again the next day with re-entry to the States…
Atlanta: 4th Of July
Although the tour bus was home to two Englishmen, a Scotsman, an Irishman and a Canadian – who all celebrate Independence Day as much as Americans celebrate the start of the Vietnam war – there was no escaping this national institution. We split up into two groups. The clever ones headed for Lake Linear – the largest man-made lake in the States – and got aboard a wooden sailboat to join thousands of other floating vessels to watch the fireworks under the night sky. The other lot headed for the town centre and somehow ended up watching “The Wizard Of Oz” on a big screen in the park surrounded by 20,000 gay men. When the scarecrow utters the immortal line, “Some people go one way and some people go the other but some people go BOTH WAYS!”, the assembled whooping was positively deafening. You had to be there, I suppose.
Salt Lake City: Mormon country
Utah’s a funny old place and Salt Lake City is even funnier. No building in the city is supposed to be higher than the central Mormon temple and the whole grid-plan is built around it. And you can only get a beer in a select few establishments and then only if you’re a member. If you’re not then you have to get a member to sponsor you and clubs generate fake member names for people when you sign in at the door. And you can’t have more than one drink on the table at a time. So you need to down that vodka tonic before you can rack up another Bud. There’s hardly anyone on the streets too at night. And anyone you do meet looks like something out of “The Stepford Wives”. Spooky.
© Kieran Wyatt