This USA tour diary was originally posted on 1st April 2015, after my big tour of the USA.
April 1, 2015
New York City, 6th March
Rockbar is a gay bar on Christopher street, home of the stonewall riots. I had originally been booked to play for a DIY queer promoter but it didn't work out, so I booked myself directly with a gay rock bar. I expected it to be really quiet as it was a last minute show-up-and-play gig, no promoter behind it, and I'm barely known in the states, so yep it was indeed a super quiet gig as expected. In the audience was a lovely Swedish guy who'd been a fan of mine for years and made my night by shouting requests (these people really are needed at quiet gigs!). Even better, the excellent London based feminist electro pop singer Gaptooth happened to be in NYC with some work pals and came along, so those supportive faces made it worthwhile and fun. The people at the Rockbar were lovely too, taking care of my new batch of CD’s which I’d had sent to them for the tour (and keeping the beers flowing). We were total tourists in NYC and had a great time being the kind of terrible tourist people I hate with a passion when I am in London!
(New York City)
Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), 7th March
We took the greyhound bus to Philly and I felt like I was back on UK tours, using the USA's version of the Megabus (although they actually have the Megabus there now which really disorientated me when I saw it!). The peeps who run The Nest were lovely. The venue itself was a punk house in north Philly. I felt at home in the area, it had tonnes of character, was rough and reminded me of a USA Manchester (really, Philly looks just like the north of England). The house was a really sweet little basement venue that felt like a European squat and the audience were young, fun and up for it. I have to say that it’s amazing that we were able to actually find the venue, as after emails, Facebook messages and texts not one person told us where it actually was, or what time to show up etc, and with punk houses being fairly secret I had to do some research and found the general area. After the gig i spent half of the night sleeping with my head on a cardboard box over a cold grid in the hallway while people partied on our sleeping sofas. Lukas (my partner, who was touring with me and stopping me from getting lost or going bonkers in the USA) was my hero and told everyone to sod off so I could sleep, which they did (bless him). Sorry kids, I'm approaching middle age and I'm a miserable Brit, get off me sofa! Kyle and jackie, two of the house punks, we're so lovely the next day and gave us a lift to the train station for the next gig, so my sleepless grumps were quickly abated. I've not been as tired as I was that day for years...jet lag, late nights, hangovers, no sleeping places...all makes me a very useless Ste and the tour had only just started!
(The Nest, Philadelphia)
Egg Harbour City (New Jersey), 8th March
Egg Harbor City is a tiny place just outside of Atlantic City, the US equivalent to Blackpool (google it, you'll see!). The promoter John from Friendship Mountain picked us two exhausted zombies up from the train station and drove us out to his house where the gig would be held. We drove down long roads with tall beautiful trees everywhere, past deer and squirrels and snow to one of the loveliest places I've ever played a gig. People drove out to the gig from surrounding cities and towns, it was instantly comfortable and I really did feel instantly like we were amongst friends. The other bands were all incredible, a great mix of punk, alternative and hip hop. We played in his house basement which he’s turned into a little punk paradise, people came down for each performance and would go upstairs for warmth and beer between sets. There was still snow on the ground (it was a disgusting Spring in the north east) and although the sun had been breaking on the east coast, I played with two coats on all the same! Friendship Mountain was friendly, homely, comfortable and people are there solely for the music. The address is not made public and you have to know about it really to go there….so the people who come are really there because they trust what John is doing with the bands. Great experience all round.
(Egg Harbor City)
Baltimore (Maryland), 11th March
My gig in Washington, D.C had been cancelled which meant me and Lukasz had two nights off to be tourists there, which was grand (yes we went to the White House but shut up, you would have too). We took it easy on the booze so that I’d be fresh and ready for Baltimore. Unfortunately I wasn't. I'd picked up some horrible bug in DC and had a major case of the shits. I was sweating and shaking and running to the toilet every 5 minutes for a filthy explosion. The venue was a great dive bar called The Sidebar, and Baltimore is rough as fuck, just how I like my cities! If Philadelphia was Manchester, Baltimore was Liverpool. So grim, so rough, so friendly, so Northern! This was a surprise queer gig. The other two bands were total queer punk heroes and I really wasn’t expecting the promoter Matty to pull that kind of gig together (communication was minimal via email so I assumed it'd be typical punk bands). The bands were so friendly, and fucking hell, Saddle of Centaur are punk rock heroines. Had I not been sweating and shitting I'd have had a truly top night. The excellence of the bands and friendliness of Baltimore got me through the physical traumas and during my set (as is often the case) adrenaline won.
(The Sidebar, Baltimore)
Athens (Georgia), 13th March
Yup, this was fab. Very small turnout, but a quality one. Probably my favourite line up of the tour...underground hip hop from Chrismis and Li’ Red and political acoustic trans hero Riley Kirkatrick played. It was organised by dear friend and fabulous first generation riot grrrrl of the Deep South Stella Zine, who also performed and blew us away with her magical, bold as fuck close-to-the-bone feminist lyrics and beautiful voice. The venue, Hendershots, was beautiful and the sound guy was great. Athens is probably the most unique small town I've ever visited - the town centre is tiny but practically every venue is a live music venue. It's hot, hip, southern and just gorgeous. Stella fixed our terrible illnesses with green smoothies and raw food and Jesus it worked! Me and Lukasz had so much fun catching up with Stella (who I toured the UK with in 2010) and relaxing in her Athens nest with her lovely cats. She was beyond hospitable and made this teeny Southern leg of the tour my most cherished part of the USA adventure.
Atlanta (Georgia), 14th March
God I just loved this city, and this gig too. It was organised by a great talented young queer guy called Elliot (who plays under the name Blue Shirt) and excellent new indiepop band Pale Clear, who both also performed (alongside young grrrl geniuses Femignome). It was as all-ages gig in a sweet arts space called YOLKspace in a gorgeous residential area of Atlanta called Cabbagetown! It was probably the youngest audience that I've ever played to, some people people still in high school, young queer people and a line up so perfect I don’t have the space to sing everyone's praises enough! Great turnout in a fantastic city that's hip, lefty and (in Europe any way) totally underrated. I made a vow to play more all-ages gigs after this one as it was probably the best audience of the tour. I did have a moment of near-conflict when a woman who didn’t appreciate my “family values song” stood right in front of me showing me the middle finger, so I sang it in her face with a free middle finger of my own and things seemed to settle down. Otherwise the audience was beautiful.The Deep South really does have soul. Atlanta left a mark on me that New York didn't come close to. During Stella’s set, she performed with members of her original 90s riot grrrl band Pagan Holiday for the first time in about 15 years (yes riot grrrl happened in the deep south and Stella was right in the middle of that) and it was a MOMENT. My stay in Georgia cemented my already-huge respect for Stella Zine, not only a great musical activist but quite possibly the single most lovely person I've ever met. She looked after me and Lukasz so well that we kept calling her our Southern Mama. On the way home to Stellas place after the gig I stopped for a piss on the motorway (near the actual love shack from the B52's song!) and somehow I ran waist-deep into a swamp, but we'll say no more of that.
(Me and Stella Zine about to be let loose on Atlanta)
(The lovely audience in Atlanta)
(Me emerging from a swamp in the Deep South at 3am)
Los Angeles (California), 16th March
Me and Lukasz were really sad to leave Stella and Georgia, but onwards and upwards as they say! Flying from the friendly deep south of Georgia to Los Angeles is as extreme as going from friendly Reykjavik to the trendiest part of London. The fame, fortune and pretentiousness was everywhere. I didn’t like it at all as a city and we encountered a lot of rude snooty people as soon as we arrived. The gig however made up for it - it was a very cool queer party called Coolworld and the organiser Oscar was lovely. Great turn out and again a fab diverse line up. Me and lukas grabbed a few beers in a local Latino gay bar and it was beautiful and friendly. Although I didn't like LA it was a good show and I was certainly digging all of those palm trees!
(5 Star Bar, Los Angeles)
Santa Barbara (California), 17th March
Santa Barbara is beautiful, like a really posh Spain. Oprah lives in the hills up there, no shit! Me and Lukasz spent the day with Zack who had organised the gig, we walked along the beach and he showed us around the lovely downtown area, giving us all the inside political dish on the city. The venue itself was a tiny all ages place called Funzone, located inside batting cages where Americans practise their baseball skills with ball machines! It was a great gig, nice enough turnout with some fabulous performers, my favourite being Mora (otherwise known as Moonwatcher), a young acoustic punky singer who sang in English and Spanish. In between sets people stayed sober and hit some balls in the late night heat instead of drinking and smoking. Such a long way from Scotland! Great gig, great night, and yes I had the theme tune to the bad 80s soap opera in my head for the entire day.
(Me with very expensive supermarket food in Santa Barbara)
(Lukasz doing some American sporty thing in Santa Barbara before I perform)
San Francisco (California), 20th March
I was the most nervous about this gig out of all of them. For the USA tour, I generally worked with promoters who sandwiched me in-between local and more known acts so as to guarantee an audience if I’m playing in a city where I’m totally unknown (ie most of them!). In San Francisco I took the risk of booking directly with a venue - El Rio - and promoted it myself from Scotland. I decided it was worth the risk, firstly because the venue pays really well - and with most gigs paying pretty badly in the states I needed to take every opportunity to claw back my expenses. Secondly, San Francisco is the only place in the USA where I’ve had tonnes of support over the years. The day before the gig I got a great full-page write up in the Bay Area Reporter, the USA’s longest running LGBT newspaper, and great local queer media boyz such as seminal queer writer Larry Bob Roberts and Mike Enders from the excellent website Accidental Bear had been plugging it too. El Rio is in the Mission, a great area of town which felt vibrant, totally working class and full of art and music. I pulled in enough of an audience to make it work - but only just! I started by playing to about 5 people but then more slowly flowed in as the set went on. The fact that Mike from Accidental Bear wrote THIS great article about supporting queer musicians as a response to the small turnout is further proof of how great those queers in SF are. I had a great night, the audience was small but so nice, and the fact that some of the guys who’d been plugging me were starting Facebook debates and sending me emails in anger that there wasn’t a bigger crowd just makes me love them more. Along with those gorgeous men in the crowd, John from the original queercore band Pansy Division was there with one of his ex gogo dancers, plus Marlene from Queer Control Records (who have featured me on their legendary queer punk compilations over the years). That's Californian punk rock royalty (if that term isn't too ironic, which yes I know, it definitely is!). I've heard a lot about SF being cold, rude and full of the worst kind of posh gays these days. In my experience nothing was further from the truth and I'd totally go back and do it again. Me and lukasz had a fucking good mid-tour holiday there too! Sunshine, boat rides, seedy queer bars and tacky shopping, delightful. Thank you San Francisco!
(El Rio, San Francisco)
(A proper diner in San Francisco)
Now behold my children, things are about to get really shit…..
Portland (Oregon), 23rd March
So I’ve played 9 shows so far and everything went pretty much brilliantly. Even the shows with small turnouts were special. Time to bring things down, don't you think? I had some offers from very cool queer promoters in Portland which I couldn't accept due to my tour schedule, so I took an offer from a bar called Dantes. Beautiful rock n roll theatre style bar, lovely sound engineer called Keith. I knew there'd be no promo for the gig as that's often the way with direct venue bookings, but they assured me there'd be an audience anyway as Mondays are apparently very busy, so I looked at it as an opportunity to play to a scene outside of my usual DIY and queer places. Dantes lied, there was no audience. I asked the few people who were there and they all confirmed it’s never busy at that time of the evening. The venue didn't even deem me interesting enough to put on their own calendar listings (let alone make a facebook event and the rest of the total basics), so how anybody was supposed to show up when nobody knew a gig was actually happening is beyond me. It’s a Monday in a city I’ve never played, which is all the more reason why I need that promotion as any audience with publicity would have been small anyway. I really don't ask for much, and Dantes just took the piss. Venues like this are the reason I look for squats, house shows and DIY promoters in general. Portland seemed like a very cool town but it was a hideous experience playing to 5 uninterested rockers for a fee that didn't cover my cheap hostel for the night. Sod you Dantes! Onwards and upwards! Or is it?
Tacoma (Washington), 24th March
When I booked the Pacific north west leg of the tour, something deep down knew it was a mistake. Usually when a place has a great reputation for music, it fails. Too many people lazily trying out anything, too many events with this "be grateful to be here" attitude and low standards of what constitutes supportive music culture. I guess that's what happens when every musician in the world passes through - the most unknown and underground of us cop the worst shit on offer. It's exactly why Switzerland pisses all over the UK as a bonafide underground music spot in Europe, but who knows that? My gut was much more drawn to Texas than Oregan and Washington and I should have listened. Basically what happened in Tacoma was that a bunch of crazy people booked me and two other excellent touring bands Mini and The Bear and The Raven and The Writing Desk and threw us in their garage to play to each other while they got off their faces and aggressively shouted at each other in the house (whilst giving themselves a big pat on the back for "supporting travelling musicians going between Portland and Seattle"). They didn't even bother watching us themselves! They drank our beer, invited themselves to our home in "England" (we've said Scotland 100 times by now, but you know), gave us no money and brought not one single person to the show. You know that promotion thing? Yeah. Second time it’s happened on the tour, and the second time in the Pacific North West. Musicians need audiences and travel money, not to have their resources scrounged by aggressive nutcases. The atmosphere was the kind where you felt at any time someone might just flip and turn on you. Me and Lukasz smiled and made the best of it, bonded with the other bands and ran away first thing in the morning. It was just horrible and after Portland I really needed something better than this bullshit. It's a good job I'm British and know how to pretend everything's fine when it's dreadful isn't it?
Olympia (Washington), 25th March
Thank you Olympia for making this final leg of the tour worth it. Truly, I love you guys! Truth be told, Olympia was the main reason I came to this part of the states and I would have been totally gutted had it not delivered. It did. A beautiful little college town with a radical music history, I just had to play there. I played in Deadbeat Records (a very cool and friendly record-shop-come-music-venue) with 3 diverse and incredible bands. People hugged me after the gig, bought lots of CD’s and really were there to discover new music. Despite all four of us bands being so different from each other, it worked. People enjoyed the diversity and were willing to change the atmosphere from a dancing punk rock environment when Light Thieves played into a chilled acoustic setting where everyone sat in silence to hear incredible local psych-folk duo The Hinges play at the end of the night. Me and Lukasz stayed with a lovely woman called Shannon in West Olympia in a gorgeous twee house we found on Air B&B called Charming Craftsman. It was such a lovely place to chill before and after the show and it made the whole experience even nicer. What a beautiful audience, town and experience. Top marks Olympia!
Seattle (Washington), 26th March
I left the venue before I was due to play. It was like British comedy Phoenix Nights with no audience in a totally unsuitable venue. Again no online promo AT ALL surfaced until 3 hours before the show, no facebook page was made, no effort on behalf of the promoter (although he’d done real promo for other shows he’d organised. Yes, musicians do notice when you treat other bands with more respect than them). I’ve played many a show to super empty audiences and it’s not a problem when I know the promoter has worked at it and the handful of people who are there are there to watch. I’m underground, people don’t know me, it happens. But I just knew before I got there it would be crap, the absence of anything on the internet made it obvious. Playing to three people (who were clearly not live music lovers. Lillian from Shameless was there though, I’m sure of it) sitting with their backs to the stage in a dive bar a million miles from the centre of Seattle and then begging all three of them for donation money is not my idea of a show. After the awfulness of Portland and Tacoma I was not willing to sink one step even lower, so I decided to just suit myself and go for drinks in Seattle instead, fuck it. The promoter was actually a really nice guy and understood why I wouldn’t play, but it just wasn’t happening. Me and lukas laughed like hell into the night at how bad the Pacific North West had treated us (except for my babes in Olympia), got drunk in a grungy bar that played Hole records and as great compensation we had a super posh hotel to sleep in overlooking the Seattle bay (it was Lukasz's surprise birthday present from me). We ended up having a fun night regardless and laughed all night like toddlers. A largely fantastic tour ended badly gig-wise, but we made our own fun anyway, that's DIY babes!
What I've learned from the good and bad of touring the USA
First of all, avoid the Pacific North West like the plague unless you’re famous or have contacts which have been properly verified by other underground musicians! Negativity aside, I will definitely be heading back to the USA. The good shows (and the majority of them were great) were worth it. It's a been a great learning curve and a lesson in trusting my intuition - next time I will be going with my gut and sticking south - probably starting in Georgia, ending in California, and taking in Texas and New Orleans in between. I'm not so interested in the "cool" northern states, and never really was. Georgia stole my heart. Having said that, I have to give a shout out to Friendship Mountain in Egg Harbor City, The Sidebar in Baltimore and Deadbeat in Olympia for being especially fantastic in the northern hemisphere! Also it's clear that all ages DIY shows are where it's at in the USA. That's where I had the best shows and where promoters understood that musicians need audiences, promotion and money. Mainland Europe might treat underground musicians (generally) much better than the states, but I still often have great gigs in the UK and the UK can be really shitty too. It’s just about learning what works, what doesn’t, and how to spot the warning signs when booking. Being a musician is about connecting with the world, putting what you've got out there and engaging with as many audiences as possible (at least it is for me). In my case it's very much about being a working class queer, sharing my thoughts and experiences on those things with whoever the fuck will listen, travelling and seeing the world with it. I don't make a living from this even though at times it's within grasp. My experience in the USA has actually made me decide actively to NOT try to make a living from music, something I’ve been thinking about jumping into for a while (at least part time - full time would be impossible for me financially). So a total U-turn there. Why? Well, rather than just do the same European countries over and over and make cash from it (if I try REALLY fucking hard), I've decided to put anything I do earn into playing countries where I'll lose money. As long as it balances out and is sustainable, it’s cool. I lost money in the USA, and it was worth every penny (and big thanks to my partner Lukasz for supporting me in every way). The experience of seeing the USA (well, some of it!), and connecting with audiences on the other side of the world is worth more than any cash payment. I've got Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the Balkans in my sight now, alongside a return to the Deep South of the USA. That’s not to mention my usual favorite countries in mainland Europe! In the world of music I am a total nobody, but who needs to rely on a grossly elitist music business that replicates the class system to get your music around the world, when you can do it yourself? I fucking don’t, and neither do you. There are certainly times when you’re sleeping on cardboard boxes in the middle of nowhere when you think “what the fuck am I doing with my life?” But then you realise that you’re seeing the world with noises you’ve created about your life, and that’s pretty incredible whichever way you look at it. See you somewhere on the globe soon dears xx
(Thanks to my gorgeous Lukasz for supporting this madness!)