The TGI Friday’s in Ukraine was blasting “Hung Up” by Madonna. I ordered a taco. It was 10 minutes to our flight, and we’d only gone to bed a few hours earlier — with each bite of tortilla, the events of the past night twisted into a foggier and foggier haze, “straddling fantasy and reality,” one might say — a cheap magician’s catchphrase. Then the food was gone and it was time to board.
This past May I spent 15 days in Europe doing shows with four musician friends: Marcel (XXYYXX), Charlie (Giraffage), Slow Magic, and Mikey (Blackbird Blackbird). While we’d all talked over various Internet media pre-Europe, I’d only met Charlie and Slow Magic in person. We all had roots in similar places: making half-formed beats after school, bedroom insomnia. And while I can’t speak for my friends, I don’t think anyone who pirates music production software and learns how to use that software via YouTube tutorials ever expects to play a show anywhere. Let alone Europe, or Scandinavia.
Throughout the tour we played in a different city every night, a total of 14. We mostly got around with the tour van, complete with a bed, but also a few trains, planes, and Ryanair. Paris, Berlin, Rome; Athens, Warsaw, Vilnius.
Reasons I fell in love with Vilnius: the lighting at around 6 p.m. threw an otherworldly blanket over the city; every body and street sign morphed into a silent silhouette. Also, the hotel had a rabbit in the lobby.
The fact that only a few hours after arriving I was performing a song I’d made in my bedroom when I was 17 brought on a crazy mixture of emotions. My junior year in high school, I’d just chop up a Beyoncé sample every night and put it up on SoundCloud for my friends to hear.
I wouldn’t say that I’d die happy after the 24 hours we spent there because that’s lame and dying sucks. But we came pretty close. Not to dying.
I should talk about the show. I couldn’t hear a single thing except the occasional hi-hat or rowdy audience member. The subwoofers hummed, pounded at my eardrums. During Charlie’s set, the bass set off car alarms in the nearby lot. All of my equipment — laptop, drum machines, mixer — was bouncing like the hydraulic cars in the “Still D.R.E.” music video, every step of the way threatening to topple off the back and into the hands of who knows what. And the crowd — my god. Around 800 people showed up to the Vilnius show. The second show I ever did, in a small club in Brooklyn, was for nine people. They were all my friends. The crowd in Vilnius was young, probably early 20s; they danced like crazy to the least danceable shit. Life is weird and awesome and rewards you just as much as it makes you want to lie down and sleep forever.
At around 4 a.m., back at the hotel, we flipped the TV on, only to find a black-and-white feed of people … sleeping. We all waited for a moment, thinking it was maybe a reality show or a strange Lithuanian ad. After a few minutes, we realized — holy shit — this was a live security feed of some hotel room. In our drunk, delirious paranoia we stared at the two couples shifting around on their beds, as the silent camera stared down at them.
Soon enough, a heavily saturated music video replaced the haunting image — one of a man with a turntable lodged in his stomach. The curve of the record and needle bulged out of his body in a disturbing, “Alien”-esque manner. He couldn’t escape the song pounding deep in his gut — an energetic dance track. The video cut between shots of bystanders dancing, grooving to this poor man’s disease as he tried to lead a normal life. At last, in the final throes of the piece, the afflicted patient received a successful operation to extract the turntable.
That was enough for the night.
We continued forward, glimpsing pieces of monuments through faded van windows, leaving cities before we had time to pronounce their names or try their food, until leaving and arriving melted into one inescapable forward motion, a current sweeping each day away like a bowling ball to pins.
Athens sticks in my mind, mostly for these incredible chicken sandwiches. We finished them on the way to a bar, where we climbed up a rusty ladder to a balcony area barely large enough to fit five people. From there, we watched the humming crowd below: conversations sparked and fizzled out, friends became friends, and the world made sense — simple as the foam left in beer glasses, a pat on the back, a parting hug signaling the end of one thing and the beginning of another.
Speeding across a vast, unfamiliar territory makes you gain an appreciation for the strange as much as the beautiful.
In Helsinki, Marcel’s computer broke moments before his set, prompting an intense on-site surgery. Marcel and the promoter were poised above the post-op MacBook like assassins, twirling massive butcher knives in lieu of screwdrivers, which were nowhere to be found, to lock the screws in place.
Our Luxembourg show was at a rained-out festival. It was like we’d stepped onto a movie set. Thunder, rain, mud everywhere, narrow footbridges, teetering Porta Potties. We played our shows in ponchos, and spent the couple hours leading up to our set huddled in the tour van, trying to get Wi-Fi on our phones and watching “Workaholics.” At that point we didn’t even care that much about the show. We briefly considered staying there all night.
I got completely lost in Musikbunker, Aachen, Germany — it stretched above ground and underground and all over the place for all I knew. I’d just stepped out of the main venue space to get a beer from the artist room backstage, and suddenly found myself in a stark white stairwell surrounded by THREE sets of double doors, all of which had knobs that spun uselessly in place like the useless fucking knobs that they are.
It was only half an hour later, after climbing up and down this insane labyrinth, that I got spat out the back entrance of the venue — which was guarded by thick metal doors — like a small, drunk turd.
I took 10 steps and I was in Manchester. The promoter had only sold 25 tickets for a 750-capacity space. After a discussion over dinner that nearly became heated — the food was enough to keep us grounded — we decided to take a day off instead of playing a subpar show. Since we’d only found out a few days prior, our flights and lodging remained the same. We flew into the U.K. and spent the entire day in the airport Travelodge. We slept, ate in the coffee shop, and slept some more. I counted my collection of European coins on the table, organizing them in stacks. There was a rabbit right outside our window.
After 12 hours of sleep, the rabbit was gone and I’d kicked off my sheets. Ready to move on, mind and body engulfed in fog, there’s no worse feeling than realizing you’ve forgotten your laptop at an obscure airport Travelodge when you’re past check-in and 10 minutes from boarding. I found my computer — it took frantic phone calls, two taxi trips, and tons of pacing back and forth — but consequently had to take a later flight by myself to make it to Aachen in time for the show.
I’m not going to say that I was glad I forgot my laptop. I wasn’t. It sucked. But being alone for the first time in a week felt really good. Just being able to sit with people I will never see again, throw on my headphones, and think about nothing for a few hours was the refresher I needed.
Across the aisle, an elderly lady sat next to the window. She held a small, white stuffed animal of some kind, and would talk to it, try to feed it, and turn its head towards the window and describe the view. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
The plane landed. Aachen, Manchester, Athens, the jolt of wheels hitting tarmac and honey-roasted peanut packs. I looked out the window and saw a city through grey clouds. Someone said Kiev, so it was Kiev. The venue was called Malaya Opera, an abandoned, imposing opera house on the corner of a regimented city block. When we arrived, there were already people lining up, and they stared at the raggedy group of humans filing out of these vans like aliens.
Soundcheck was good. We ordered Domino’s. If you ever get the chance, try the Domino’s in Kiev. But for the most part, we hung out in the green room, checked out the urban sprawl from the third story where the stage was, and watched “Workaholics.”
It wasn’t until Slow Magic’s set that events fell into motion. The venue was eerie in a perfect way, the crowd was huge, and there were fog machines. However, right around midnight while munching on leftover crusts in the artist room backstage, we heard a growing ruckus. Just as we got in view of the stage, two burly police officers strode up the steps to Slow Magic (who, by the way, wears a kaleidoscopic, brightly colored animal mask for his shows). We were stunned — at first believing they were rowdy, dressed-up fans. After a few exchanged words, the officers picked up the onstage power strip and dramatically unplugged everything from it. The music cut out, fog machines turned off, the lights were back in standby mode, and the crowd started chanting “Fuck the police” in a variety of languages as the officers stood onstage next to a man with an animal mask and a drum, out of their element, big brimmed hats and all.
In retrospect, we should’ve been more scared, perhaps a little more cautious, or cautious at all. But instead, Slow Magic started banging on his drum, sans microphone and computer, and the rest of us invited the crowd up to the stage. Dozens clambered up — there were no barriers of any kind. At this point, the venue was beyond hysterical. The officers looked at what must have appeared to be a drug-fueled ritual. They left.
The crowd, however, stayed. We never got the music back, but in place of that, we met and took pictures with and chatted with hundreds of fans onstage. Over and over, we heard about how rare it is for producers to come to Kiev, and how they only had famous pop stars tour there. Everyone was beaming, partially at excitement from the police run-in, partially at being able to put faces and bodies and handshakes to the music.
To have someone you’ve never seen before genuinely excited to meet you via a song they’d heard on the Internet — that is insane. And the fact that I would never see most of them afterwards lent the scene a sense of fleeting beauty that I’ll struggle to find again.
The clock ran down, the stragglers left the opera house, and we made it back to our lodging, which happened to be a massive mansion owned by a potbellied man who wore slippers. We asked no questions, retreated to the balcony on the second floor, and soaked in the sounds of 4 a.m. Kiev: bottles breaking in the distance, vines creeping up brick walls, hushed conversations, and second-story rendezvouses.
I’d do anything to go back to that point in time when everything was fresh and new.