Ah, the holidays. For Backwash, the annual Christmastime pilgrimage to my home town of Phoenix almost always involves some exploration of the endless dive bars that line the city's central corridor, wood-paneled places with pickled eggs on the counter and equally vile specimens on the jukebox. Because I long ago discovered that I'm violently allergic to commercial rock radio -- we're talking hives and eye spasms here -- it's during these sloppy and smoke-filled hours that I get the purest sense of what new mainstream bands are popular with the pool players and Bud draft drinkers of the world, be they frat boys home for vacation or regulars who've been bellying up since the Def Leppard days.
I'm almost astonished by what I hear. Surely, everyone knows that multinational radio giants and soulless record companies are behind all of the shlock that clogs the airwaves -- I mean, that's got to be it, right? So how to explain sentient beings willingly paying money to hear the sixteen-billionth spin of "My Sacrifice"? (It was during a round of tabletop video poker that I first learned to loathe Creed.) Or why adults of legal drinking age line up the quarters for songs by Sum 41, Kelly Osbourne and Puddle of Mudd? To each their own, we say as our mind wobbles.
Relativism plays a big part in the dive-bar musical experience, whether those bars are in Phoenix, Fargo, Denver or Dover. In my group, usually around closing time, someone will make the sloshy confession, without irony or embarrassment, that they do, indeed, love Journey. We'll concede that we understand why people liked Pearl Jam and that INXS was at least stylish and sexy in its day. We will practically rejoice to hear John Cougar Mellencamp and actually tear up when "Born to Run" comes blaring out of the 'box as the bartender announces last call. It's the same story year after year, and most of the music is the same, too: What's old becomes new again, and what's new sometimes seems foreign and incomprehensible. I think it's a fitting place to start again. Happy New Year.
The holidays were a tad more glamorous for members of the Czars, who spent Christmas not in a stinky old bar, but among ruins and revelers in L'Espagne. The band was selected to open several Spanish dates on the Flaming Lips' European tour; the shows were part of Winterfest, a festival lineup that also paired the act with Imperial Teen and Elf Power. (Having now toured the Old World five times, the Czars are slowly inching toward the same "More Popular Abroad Than at Home" status that has shadowed 16 Horsepower for years.) And because we believe wholeheartedly in living vicariously through people who lead more exciting lives than we do, we asked bassist Chris Pearson to provide us with a brief account of the band's transatlantic trek -- or, How the Czars Spent Their Christmas Vacation. Take it away, Señor Pearson:
"Our schedule was crammed with six airports, two rental cars, 2,500 kilometers of driving, five shows in five nights and little to no time for any sightseeing or rest. No rest for the wicked. We left for Spain and embarked on a 25-hour marathon travel day through Miami, London and Barcelona. I had to rent a second car for the extra roadies who 'volunteered' for the trip once they found out who we were playing with. They never seem to be available when we tour Cincinnati and Detroit. Andy Monley [guitarist] brought his ten-year-old son, Simon; along with my friends from Albuquerque and our publicist Karine from Paris, we had an entourage of eleven people.
"Driving in Spain is an exercise in opposites. Highways are easy to navigate and are well-maintained, with no speed limit, while the cities are the polar opposite. The streets change names every other block and are directionless, with one-ways (usually the wrong way) and one-lane streets cut off by double-parked cars and taxis. The roundabouts are an adventure in geometry and patience, and the taxis and buses apparently have universal immunity to drive in any lane at any speed. Getting lost is a given, and a compass or GPS is a must if you want to make the gig on time.
"The scenery in Spain is a lot like New Mexico, except with castles and monasteries in every town and a large black bull (aka El Toro Negro) standing along each highway. In the '80s, they were billboards for Soberano Cognac; Spain outlawed billboards on national roads in the early '90s, and then the bulls were painted black to guard the hillside. They have since become a national symbol.
"After arriving in Barcelona, we drove six hours to Madrid for the first show at the Sala Arena, and over 1,000 were in attendance. All bands had a great response, and the crowds were very respectful of each other's music. The Czars' set was the mellowest and most melancholic of the four bands. Luckily, John Grant [bandleader] speaks fluent Spanish, and his opening introduction to the audience provided a good icebreaker. Something to the effect that he had spent a lot of his time learning to speak Spanish, but that night he would concentrate on singing in English. Our set length was only 45 minutes, into which we managed to squeeze ten songs. I knew we had fans at each show, because they cheered when we played some of our more familiar songs, like "Black and Blue" and "Drug." On all four nights, Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips popped up on the side of the stage and watched us, which was a little unnerving but an indication that he liked us. Apparently he had never heard of us before the tour, but he was impressed enough to see each show, and he made a point of thanking us during the Lips' set.
"The Flaming Lips were energetic and theatrical, and they put on a great performance every night. Wayne has an old twelve-string acoustic guitar that is not a working guitar, but a retrofitted theramin. All of their acoustic guitars, synths and much of the drums are sampled. For each show, Wayne wears the same white suit and smears fake blood on his forehead. His suit is miraculously cleaned each night. Each of the Lips are friendly, incredibly down-to-earth and very approachable. Wayne seemed ubiquitous on the tour and was always available to sign autographs, take pictures and answer questions, for both fans and bandmembers.
"In Barcelona, our show was at the large industrial club The Razzmatazz, which has four separate live rooms. We played there two months ago in the small room, and this time we were in the 2,500-capacity 'Grande' Room. We met a lot of people from the audience after the show and, although their English wasn't as good as those in northern Europe, we were able to communicate very well. Some told me they haven't had to speak English in over ten years. Afterward, we were able to go out with friends to try 'Absenta,' aka Absinthe, which is banned in the United States and supposedly hallucinogenic. 'If Van Gogh can drink it, why not you?' they said. After downing three of them, I was feeling no pain, and the next morning, it was a laborious effort to hit the road on time after only four hours of sleep.
"After Barcelona we drove to Valencia, a beautiful city of one million people on the Mediterranean coast. We ended up being two hours late due to rain, road construction and an accident, but the stage crew was quick to set up, and we pounded out a sound check in twenty minutes, a minor miracle for us. The show was at the Roxy, more of a rock club and disco than theater, but with great sound and lights. Again, all the bands were great, and the crowd was into the show. 'Molo Mucho!' they say. For the first time, people even danced to us.
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"After the last show in Vitoria, we drove all night to Barcelona to make a 9 a.m. flight for our own headlining show in London. At 5 a.m., Roger was driving and we were cut off by a bus. We went into the median at about 90 mph, skidded perpendicular to the road, almost flipping over, and were shaken but otherwise okay. Earlier that night, Wayne introduced the song 'Do You Realize?' by saying we all have to live for the moment and you cannot let time pass without fulfilling your life. In a bit of foreshadowing, he said you might die in a car crash tomorrow and you only had lived your life up to that moment, so don't put anything off, and live it while you can. We almost fulfilled that prophecy.
"Next up was our own headlining show at the Spitz Club in the East End of London. The Spitz is a quirky little club with a pyramid roof, skylights and a mezzanine. Our label, Bella Union, is based in London, and everyone from the label came down to the show. It was a good gig for us and sold out, but we were completely knackered from no sleep and were delirious after the show. We left my bass guitar in the club. I tried to retrieve it the next morning, but the club was locked and we had to leave for the airport without it. So if you see me playing washtub bass at our next show, you'll know I never got it back.
"All in all, it was an incredible, albeit too short, experience. Europe is such an amazing place and very supportive of alternative music and the arts. Unfortunately, our tours never give us enough time off -- usually one day off every seven days -- and we only get a quick windshield tour of each city. Wayne put it best when he told me in Valencia that 'it could be Japan out there, for all I know. We play the gig, go to the hotel, get up early and go to the next city. I never get to see any city outside of the club, hotel and airport.' He forgot to include that he also spends all of his free time doing interviews, meeting fans and hanging out with the opening bands. At least I'll get to say I saw the club, the hotel, the airport and the Flaming Lips."