Playing music in an unsigned, relatively unknown rock ‘n roll band is as exciting as one might imagine. Freedom, fun, and fury. Some days it feels like I’m getting away with something. Other days it feels like I’m being punished.
November first marked the end of my eighth major tour as the drummer for the Halifax quintet The Stogies. Back in March, we set up shop at Codapop Studios on Quinpool Road to record our first full-length album with engineer Erien Eady-Ward (Charlie A’Court, Orchid’s Curse, Mike Bochoff), and producer Jon Landry (singer/guitar player with The Stanfields). The final product: an 11 track record we call HOOT released in October.
The next step in promoting the new album was a tour to help reel in some of the cash we borrowed or spent out of pocket for recording, production and distribution. We left Halifax October 12 and travelled west making stops in New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario. We returned home to Nova Scotia after 12 days, 11 shows and a mess of memories to finish the tour over two weekend trips to Cape Breton and Antigonish.
We built this tour around the fall festival known as Indie Week where bands from all across Canada, the United States and Europe coagulate almost every live music venue in Toronto. We placed second in 2012 at the festival’s main attraction, the Road to Indie Week Battle of The Bands. This year the top band walked away with a prize-package of musical trinkets and a trip to next year’s Indie Week Europe in Manchester, England. Decent.
Like many young scallywags from the Maritimes, I grew up on hockey and music. Cornwall, P.E.I., wasn’t the most musical town but my old man played drums and my mother sang and played piano. By Grade 11, I realized I wasn’t going to be the next Doug Gilmour and traded my Sher-Wood Paul Coffey curve hockey stick.
It took moving to Halifax, a university degree and a lot of practice, as well as another semi-successful band to finally find myself drumming in The Stogies in late 2009. Since then, we’ve toured relentlessly, recorded a five-song EP, recorded then scrapped another album and took and ended a hiatus to record our current release.
We pulled up outside The Barfly in Montreal after starting the tour with two shows in Fredericton and Saint John. The tavern is no bigger than Tom’s Little Havana with a far less welcoming vibe. All I wanted to do was fade into the mural of old concert posters. Leering Habs fans sat at the bar watching their team lose as I “Je m’excused” my way past them with my gear. The stage had a cobweb covered up-right piano taking most of the stage space. Couldn’t wait to play, cramped like clowns in a Corolla. To add to the already deflated morale of the band, each of us sick with colds, we came to learn there was no sound-man, no supporting band and no pay.
The hotel vending machine was the best part of Montreal. On to the next one.
The next one was as dreary as the previous. The APK in London, Ontario. A seven-hour rip from Montreal, we landed in the pouring rain with an annoying feeling like we were in for another night like the last. I was right.
We had a sound-guy though, and, we were treated to great hospitality afterwards.
I’ve come to realize that when I’m on the road it’s rarely the shows that make or break the tour. Some shows are awesome. Others I file in the “forget” pile. It’s the people who take us in off the road who make it possible to stay sane on the road.
I’ve often questioned my decision to stay with the band due to the financial burden it carries. Like a rigid rock around my neck poking my chest as I walk, I’m reminded every day I work in the kitchen in Halifax of how much dedication it takes to make a band see the smallest iota of success.
But when I have people along the way helping with the normal everyday stuff, the road can be a comfortable place to work.
Touring vindicates my “for now” job and stifles the voices in my head telling me to cut my hair, unroll the sleeves of my t-shirt, and find that elusive career job. Coming off the 403 in backed-up Toronto traffic knowing I had a gig later that night at the Hideout for the Indie Week launch party was a big middle finger to those career-oriented voices.
Our Hideout set was great. People responded well to the new songs, shook our hands, bought our CD and made fun of the way we speak. A good friend of mine from P.E.I. put us up in his west-end condo with a view of the CN Tower, two bathrooms, a sectional couch, free laundry, and a spare bedroom. Like a warm blanket from the dryer after walking in a snowstorm, that night in Toronto was just what I needed.
It didn’t take long to step back into the storm. While beautiful Guelph only differed from Montreal and London in that we weren’t the only band playing. I wasn’t fazed by the average turn-outs at the non-Indie Week shows. By now it was no surprise. My spirits stayed stooped in warm ‘n fuzzies knowing we were heading back to Toronto to finish tearing apart Indie Week with the comfort of a sweet west-end condo to come home to.
My last night in Toronto, a Sunday, was the end of the first leg of the tour. The band played two shows at two different bars Friday night and a set at the Rivoli on Saturday making for slow-moving Stogies by Sunday. The final round in the coveted Indie Week Battle of the Bands took place at the Mod Club.
The only thing missing was a red carpet and George Stroumboulopoulos. An inflatable Jack Daniels whiskey bottle adorned the front entrance. Volunteers were everywhere, smiling, showing me the door every time I needed a cigarette. The inside was a fair size. Like the Palace but with a classy-looking balcony part, much like that from The Muppet Show. Media personnel were scurrying, photographers were all but swinging from the rafters and my nerves were just about shot.
Stretching in the stairwell beside the stage entrance I tried to tell myself this was just another gig. I’m not a fan of band battles, never have been. They make me hold my sticks a little tighter than normal and it didn’t help that this one was in Toronto in front of some legit deal-makers.
Following our set, to my surprise, I was greeted with “Man, that was awesome.” “Dude, you guys got this thing!” And, “Hey! Can we get an interview?”
“Thank you,” “probably not” and “Sure” were my replies. Definitely felt like I got away with something leaving the Mod that night.
What I didn’t leave with was a Stogies’ win. Upset but not defeated by the verdict, I took solace in meeting a lot of industry folk, some solid bands and new friends over the course of the festival; the band left its mark on every stage, and I still had enough dough in my pockets to make it home.
The van left the Tim Horton’s parking lot at 2 a.m. The straight-shot back to Halifax is never fun. I was fortunate this time to sleep a lot of the way.
Come Wednesday, I was back to work. Friday, I was on the road. Wash, rinse and repeat for one more week and here I am. No worse for the wear, no money in the bank, but with stories to tell.