Road Diary - On Tour with Stars

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     I was leaving Chicago after passing it for the 4th time in 3 weeks, after loading up all the gear back into the van after doing a studio session for Audiotree, and I realized that these are going to be the best days of my life. No matter how much success I achieve, no matter how big this thing gets, these tiny van tours, driving around the country sweating it out with these amazing people, are going be the times I look back on.


Night Drive


     There’s something about being on the cusp of your dreams.  That’s where humans thrive.  When we’re still searching, still striving.  When there’s still a hole we’re trying to fill, an ache we’re trying to cure, something we’re trying to prove.  Bruce Springsteen before Born to Run, Radiohead before OK Computer, David Bowie before Ziggy Stardust. 

     Right now my band and I are chasing that dream.  In the studio I’m chasing that perfect song, the song that touches deep inside you without having to break or open anything.  you just find that it’s there, like a ghost.  It needs no doors.  When I’m on tour the band and I are chasing that perfect show.  Where we lose ourselves, become bigger than our bodies, than our movements.  Where we’re not just playing an instrument, we’re creating a fine meal, each of us a different ingredient, not one ounce too much of any one spice or flavor.  So you notice no one thing more than another, so you forget you’re even eating, and are transported.


Mike Backstage


          But these are the days I’ll look back on.  Spending 3 nights in Chicago, walking around near the Art Institute, being enamored of the big buildings, I’m still a kid that way, when I’m in a truly big city, a truly tall city.  NY scares me.  But the same way that looking up into the night sky and understanding a fraction of the vastness of space scares me.  NY is like being in the ocean.  You’re all too aware that its power can crush you, but you ride its waves and get tossed around close to its shores, and it’s exhilarating.  The threat of total demise, the knowledge of your own small power, to stay alive despite this force, is thrilling, and then the understanding of your own smallness, is at once disheartening and relaxing.  In NY you are insignificant.  But if you survive...

          So playing 2 sold out shows there was a pretty good swim!  Driving straight across the country for 4 days basically without stopping for more than a bite to eat twice a day, is quite an experience.  It does something to your mind.  It sets you in motion.  You become a traveller and nothing else.  Every energy is devoted to traveling well, to making it through the day with your sanity.  And then you land in Pawtucket Rhode Island, and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by people, and these people are cheering and dancing, and you’re playing the electric guitar and pounding out beats.  The variety of my days sometimes makes me laugh out loud.  How sometimes I spend all day in my bathrobe because I wrote a song in my sleep, and the second I wake up to the second I go back to sleep, I’m getting it into my computer.  And then the very next day I might drive to San Rafael to play outdoors at a festival with tons of people and a beautiful blue sky behind me.  You just get up and do whatever the calendar says, no matter what it requires.


Stage Lights


          This tour was also special because I got to be reunited with Stars.  I give them a lot of credit for making me what I am today.  They gave me my first chance at playing for a lot of people.  I had been playing small shows around the Bay Area, an LA or San Diego show here or there.  But it was all very much toiling in obscurity, and no blogs were writing about me, nobody was knocking down my door.  And then out of the blue my manager tells me that Stars has decided to take me out on a national tour.  The only tour I had done up to that point was one I booked myself, which had shows like the one I played in Olympia, WA in the dead of winter, in a shack attachment to a vegan restaurant that was unheated, and had a mixer with 4 channels, 2 of which were dented in and useless, and about as many people in attendance.  Those are the kind of shows where you have to meet someone at the show to stay at their house, and it’s a good thing you played at a restaurant, cause that’s your food for the night.  So that’s the level I was at.

          But on that Stars tour I was playing to 1,000 - 3,000 people every night.  And that set me on my way.  I learned so much from watching them too.  Just being a part of a big, wild, moving production like that, to see all the inner workings of the show, from how much gaff tape is used, to seeing how to check monitors for the first time, was the education of a lifetime.  So to be back with those guys, after I had paved my own way with the tools they gave me, made a name for myself, headlined and sold out my own national tours, felt like going back home to the cool kids and now they weren’t giving you noogies, they were handing you a beer.


Stars on Stage


          When we were at the first NY show I was in front of the stage during Stars’ soundcheck and I overheard them saying, “We’ve gotta hire a saxophonist to play on ‘Trap Door’” and I said, “No you don’t, I’ll do it!”  And I don’t think they knew I could play the saxophone, so they were like, “okay, well, hop on up here and let’s hear what you got,” and after that I played sax on two of their songs every night.  And the greatest part was, for one of the songs they just wanted to me go crazy, they wanted me to play as many notes, and as fast and as loud and wild as possible for 2 straight minutes.  Which is every saxophone player’s dream.  So I was basically making feedback with my saxophone, by pushing the reed to its limits, and making it vibrate in ways it wasn’t meant to, hitting high squealing overtones and low buzzing squawks.  I would finish my show, get all the gear off stage, then eat dinner as quickly as possible, while listening to the show in my in-ear monitors so I would know what time to come downstairs, then bust out onto the stage amid all the lights and noise and energy, wail on the saxophone for 2 minutes, then go back upstairs and sit there by myself, or with one of my band mates.  Which was the funniest part, because I had just hit you know, 11 on the saxophone, played as hard as you can possibly play, and then just as soon as it began, I was back in the green room with my chest pounding, like, coming down from that stage high.  And then I went back out for one more, more traditional, but no less energized, solo, and then I was done for the night.

     It wore me out pretty good at one point, I came down with a bug too, and playing my own show, then blowing all the air left over inside me through that horn as hard as I could night after night, kinda laid me out, so I had to take a break for a few shows, but as soon as I was better I was back at it.  Cause when your show’s over, you’re pretty bummed, in a way, cause you don’t get to play anymore.  And I got to keep hitting the stage, AND to share that stage with Stars, a band who’s song ‘Elevator Love Letter’ was one of the biggest influences in my first rock band in college.  So it was pretty crazy for me to be there, to have these people be my friends now, and to be contributing to their music in a small way.  When they left for Canada in Michigan, on the last night, they wanted me to hop on the bus and play with them on their last three Canadian shows of the tour.  How cool would that have been!!!!  But I had an Audiotree session back in Chicago the next day, so I had to stay on my own train.

     Chicago was really the crown jewel of this tour.  I’ve played Chicago a lot, but never really spent any time there.  I got to catch up with my friends Sean and Aaron from Empires, and we stayed in these apartments downtown, near the art institute.  The real luxury was that we didn’t have to pack up our stuff after the first night at Lincoln Hall, since we were doing two shows in a row there.  That also meant that we had our own mini production crew for 2 days, cause the venue staff there is so great, that they took the opportunity to really dial in the sound and the lights.  The first show was our favorite one of the tour, and then the second show was even better.  Not sure why, really, I think we just played great, and we really played WITH each other.  It was more about playing together than playing for the audience.  We just had a blast up there.  And I love opening for people because the audience has no idea what to expect, and in fact, they probably think you’re going to suck.  And it’s fun to watch their faces, the expression of excitement when they see that not only does this band not suck, but it might actually even be really good!


Mike and Joyce at the Hancock building


     Then every morning before the shows I walked around through the big buildings and by the docks, saw the Bean, did touristy things.  At night I went up to the Hancock Tower and loitered in the restaurant so I could check out the views.

     I also drove by the Wilco building, which is what I call it, the one from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album cover.  That must feel so cool, to put a city back on the map.  Chicago hadn’t really been a music mecca since the time of Muddy Water and the blues, and people actually moved there because of Wilco, just cause they were amazing


Wilco Building


 So I was great to get to spend a few days in one of America’s greatest cities.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t brought my book with me, which I had been reading, ‘Dangling Man’ by Saul Bellow, which is set in Chicago in the 40s, because the city really felt old to me, it felt like a heritage site of America.  Not in the way that NY does, where everything is piled on top of itself, buildings upon buildings, where you can feel the lives lost and pulsating underneath the bricks and the subways.  But more like you could feel the dream of America in Chicago, you can feel the way America felt in the 30s and 40s, when it was large, when it was a teenager, when it felt invincible and in the right.

          In Cleveland we went to the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, and it really depressed us.  The only things that were in there were the useless vestiges of the people we long to know.  Their shoes, a suit jacket that Bruce Springsteen wore in 2004, David Bowie’s jacket, a guitar.  These are not the things that make a musician great.  These are the interchangeable tools, the parts you can order online.  What made them great lives in them and can never be extracted for display.  They don’t even know it themselves, and that’s probably why they kept creating, partly, to drive closer and closer to themselves.  But you can never know another person like that, not your lover, not your neighbor, not a rock star.  So it’s a bit of a sham.  But there was a great quote by Roger Waters written on the set of the Wall: You can check it out here.


Mike on the water


     It also depressed us, I think, because the dream of Rock ‘N Roll, that we, me and the band, have, is dead.  We don’t live in that time anymore.  There are no more rock stars.  Jack White does a pretty damn good job.  Wayne Coyne.  But these are even guys from a different generation.  The music industry has changed so much since they became famous.  We live in an age where the artist is revered but not respected.  You don’t steal from someone you respect.  We also live in the age of message boards, where in an attempt to reach someone we admire, the quickest way to their heart is through a cutting critique.  We know that our adulation will be lost in the piles of other laudatory statements.  But no matter how big you are, every critique stings.  And that’s a kind of relationship you can have with a star.  If you hurt them you’ve gotten to them.  I truly do believe, though, that the people who write those things are actually wishing they could express their love for those people.

     So the dream of rock ‘n roll is dead.  Or is it...?  We’re still out here doing it.  And like Kurt Vonnegut says, “No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.”  An audience member posted that on an instagram she took of us at the Cleveland show.  And that’s why we do it.  Because we have to.  Because it’s magic.  Because they can’t take it away from me, and they can’t take it away from you.




When you get everything you want, when you’re comfortable, you do lose your edge.  And I’m not saying I’m going to strive to be uncomfortable.  Like all people, I can’t help but work towards comfort.  But I find that a certain amount of discomfort, actually, quite a large amount of discomfort, if it can be put up with, is the brother of great joys and highs than safety and ease allows us.

          If you’re with the same person for 10 years, romantically, you’re less likely to say “yes” to that party out in the hills of Oakland, or to taking a bus all the way out to the ocean with a bunch of people you don’t know.  And those people might not end up being people you like.  But the next ones might.  But we all want to settle down.  So I guess the trick is to just keep saying “yes.”  When you have to choose between the couch and the trip to the ocean, the uncertainty of an evening, say “yes.”




- Mike


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