I’ve got to write about this gig, just so I can justify writing up another ten or so articles about ridiculous bullshit that went wrong. If you have ten stories about stuff going wrong and one about when it was alright then you’re heroically relating true stories; if you just have ten straight stories about stuff-ups and disasters then you’re either inept, a whinger, or both.
This isn’t to say that every show I’ve had has been a disaster. There have been quite a few great ones. I’m a lucky dude. But few of them were as perfect, fulfilling, and enjoyable as the one I’m about to recount.
I joined UK death metal band Mithras back in 2009 when their old bassist/vocalist Rayner left them. I was already rehearsing with Leon, the main Mithras guy, in preparation for the Senseless ‘Floating World’ album. As soon as I heard about the lineup vacancy I not only volunteered, I swore that I’d kick any other contenders down a flight of stairs. And I totally would have as well. Mithras were often maligned as Florida death-metal clones or Morbid Angel wannabes. They weren’t, there’s a real psychedelic splash of colour to their music that other bands of the genre don’t have, but they were similar enough to really rock me. Ever since I started playing an instrument I just wanted to be Dave Vincent (minus the codpiece, perhaps) and seeing as though Morbid Angel wouldn’t hire me, Mithras would do just fine.
Did I just say Morbid Angel wouldn’t hire me? Quick side story: I finished the Art of Noise tour in 2003 with Berzerker down in Tampa, Florida and was fortunate enough to get on the piss with Morbid Angel’s drummer Pete Sandoval. We were a good portion through a bottle of Jim Beam and I was asking how the ‘H’ album was going…last I heard, they’d be in the studio any day now. I specifically asked if Dave Vincent was back in, as per the rumour going around. Pete confided in me that the negotiations had fallen apart last minute. He had no idea who was going to do bass and vocals on the album. He was freaking out. This was my chance! I said “I’LL fucking do it! I can play all of your albums A through to D, note for note, know all the lyrics, and can do all the vocals!” When Al Dawson from Earache confided the same problem to Luke – no Dave on the H album, don’t know who to use – Al was told the same thing. Sam can do it! He can already play all of their stuff! – Hey, you gotta aim big sometimes, don’t you?
Needless to say that one didn’t fly. Shit, it didn’t even start flapping.
Anyway, I auditioned and got the role with Mithras. There was another unexpected pleasure on joining Mithras which was everyone could play their instruments WELL. I mean REALLY well. We locked in real tight together, and even though Leon regularly gave Ben hell about his drumming it was a step up from a lot of the other dudes I was used to playing with. The main thing I loved was that no-one forgot songs, or made ‘car-crash’ mistakes; mistakes where you have to stop the song and start again.
I was so used to years in Berzerker where you were never sure if someone was going to forget how the song went, or start playing something different entirely. I remember some show in Adelaide where we were supposed to play ‘Abandonment’. Luke and I started playing the song, but Matt started playing ‘No-One Wins’ and Gary played ‘Painless’. This was after plenty of rehearsing and a few shows. There were no problems like that with Mithras. It was pretty rock-solid from early on and only got better. I think we looked at each other after the first rehearsal and said, hey, that would have been a passable show. As a result I always felt super-confident stepping onto a stage with those guys. Sometimes with Berzerker I’d be in my mask just shuddering, thinking dear god what’s going to happen tonight?
This confidence was a good thing as we booked our first two shows about three months after starting rehearsals. The first show – which wasn’t the perfect one – was in Rushden, or Kettering. I have difficulties telling those two places apart. About twenty people turned up to the show. I guess it was good as a ‘first gig’.
The second show was the perfect one, and that was two weeks later in the Czech Republic playing at Brutal Assault 2009 Festival for around ten thousand people.
We went to fly from that English airport beginning with ‘S’ whose name I can’t remember right now. The stupid one the global-warming protesters shut down a few years by yelling at the fence, that one. Air travel with a band would normally be cause for disaster, and to be fair we tried to incite disaster in two respects. Firstly we brought along our soundguy Bob. Bob really shouldn’t travel anywhere foreign, or even be let out of a cage. He is a bald middle-aged red-faced foul-mouth whoring bigot on an array of medication. By bigot, I totally mean raging racist. He doesn’t like foreigners unless he is perpetrating sex crimes on them. Even then, I fear he still doesn’t like them and that his graven libido is fuelled by loathing. He just has that aura about him: “Born to Hate-Fuck”.
And that’s the other side to Bob, the man requires constant sex. He just Has To Have It. It doesn’t matter if it’s strangers, homeless women, personal ads in the paper, or mobile numbers written on toilet doors, Bob would be in there faster than a pig to shit. He is the sexual go-to man for every woman in the Midlands who requires loveless debasing by a revolting thug.
Bob nearly lost it when we went through security screening. We all got through fine but he was pulled aside by a black security dude and made to remove his Doc Martens. Bob’s face got red and his eyes bulged, and we barely managed to drag him away post-search before he started quoting Hitler and mouthing all manner of racial epiphets. He spent the rest of the trip speaking to everyone in the Czech Republic in a Borat accent, but apart from that he was fine.
Stanstead! That’s the name of the fucking airport! So we nearly missed our plane because we were all lounging around eating sandwiches and having drinks. Fortunately, Leon is super OCD about details and managed to alert us that the gate was closing in five minutes during one of his many paper checks. The guy was detail-obsessed about every aspect of the flight, the bookings, the show, to the point where he was even reading the fine print under ‘carriage’ to find out what we were and weren’t allowed to take on the flight. He had me ringing up the airline at one point to get their definition of what constituted “electronic equipment”, which was tricky as the airline’s customer service helpline (like all UK helplines) was an M.C.Escher nightmare of phone options leading from one to the other and staffed entirely by robots. About an hour into that call I was cursing the obsession with detail, but it saved our ass that day. We made our flight and were the last ones on board.
So, this is where the gig became perfect. It became perfect because the team behind the Brutal Assault festival were involved, and when they’re involved, shit goes right. We arrived in Prague, met a dude holding a sign for the band, and jumped into a van. We were riding with the guys from Pain who were lovely, and a guitar tech from Opeth who was a douche. You know, one of those industry support people who thinks they’re more important than the band itself. We drove for an hour and a half and arrived at a small town jam-packed with metalheads near the border of Poland. The van drove into a large old military fortress and parked in a large carpark area.
We got out. The driver told us to wait for a minute, that help would be along shortly. Everything had been going smoothly so far and this is where everything took a step up in wonderfulness. About a minute later, a person from the festival came and gave us laminates, drink and food vouchers, and pointed at where the food tent was. Another minute later, a dude on a quadbike towing a trailer along turned up and asked if we had merchandise to sell at the merch tent. We gave him our boxes of shirts and CDs which he swiftly counted, wrote down amounts and prices, then gave us a stock sheet to sign. He was just disappearing around the corner when another quad-bike-trailer combo turns up. This guy was to take us and our equipment to our backstage cabin. I loved it. BAM BAM BAM! The three top problems of getting ready for a gig taken care of with minimum fuss, one after the other. Normally just organising food, backstage, and merch would take hours and screaming and frantic negotiation. I was enjoying myself already. We headed off to the cabin.
Now the festival site is a BIG old army fort with a few layers of walls. We were already inside the main compound. To get to the backstage cabin area, you walk down a large tunnel which takes you through the last wall into the festival area. The ground is gravel and dirt. We walked through the tunnel which approaches the two-stage setup from behind, and as you approach it you just get the huge bottom end of whatever band is playing booming at you. When you exit the tunnel it opens up to a huge outdoor area, all the sound frequencies pound your ear at incredible volume, and you can suddenly hear thousands of people. It’s like being a gladiator and walking out into the Colosseum. I went to a gap between the stages and looked out. We estimated the crowd to be around ten thousand people. They filled the open area and were sitting on a hill that ran up the back of the site. I could see them in the distance. Biohazard were on, telling everyone how real their shit was and reminding people that they were in fact from Brooklyn. Tera Patrick was dancing on stage. I looked back at the people. They were smashing the crap out of each other. In a few hours, I thought, I will be onstage playing to them. My stomach dropped away and I felt lightheaded. It felt like my first gig all over again.
We went to our cabin which was stocked with water, soft drinks, fridges, and towels. We got our equipment out and started double-checking everything. Bob went off to check the soundboard and say things to strangers like “my wife, she is number one prostitute in village”. Our assigned assistant turned up. I forget her name but one thing I won’t forget is how ridiculously hot she was. She was taller than all of us, blonde, slightly tanned, great english. She said if there’s anything she can do for us, do not hesitate to ask. Thank God Bob was out of the room.
The other guys had a good long look around, I think I went for some food. When I checked out the festival site later I found the sheer number of people so overwhelming I scurried back to the cabin fairly quickly. The thing which was playing on my mind the most was that with all the Berzerker shows, both Luke and I would do vocals…but he was the only one that regularly talked to crowds and introduced songs. I think my last attempt at stage banter with Berzerker didn’t go over too well. We were starting a tour in Rushden – or Kettering – and some drunken idiot stage-diver managed to tangle up and unplug all of the drum trigger leads as well as the mic for the guitar cab. I think Luke screamed at me to say something, tell a joke, anything, while they took time to try and plug everything back in. I told a joke:
Q: What’s the difference between an apple and a dead baby?
A: I don’t cum on an apple before I eat it
So stage banter wasn’t my forte. It was starting to dawn on me that I would not only have to play bass and do vocals in this gig but address and engage a crowd of thousands, whose first language was not english. Gulp. I started compulsively chewing gum. The biggest rush doing a gig for me isn’t when I step on stage, it’s the two or three hours beforehand. By the time I step out I’ve already warmed up and got myself to a state mentally where I can handle anything. But the pre-gig waiting is when the imagination has time to fly and the butterflies happen. I love butterflies. To me it feels like your body straining against a leash, doing what it has to do to get itself into a peak-performance state. I never had butterflies like this before. It was unreal. It was like drugs. Thank god this gig was with Mithras. We were so well prepared, so ready, and Leon, Ben, and Bob were so relaxed that it was something I could enjoy.
The hot assistant came to our room and told us there was a lineup change, would that be a problem? I thought to myself, hah, here it comes. I knew this was all going too smoothly. This is where they say you’re on ten minutes ago, good luck with the last five minutes of your set. Or they say that some rockstar has had a strop and they need to cancel your show. I wasn’t prepared for what she said though:
“The lineup that we’ve got in mind would be Brutal Truth, then Turisas, then you, then Cynic on last. Would that be a problem?”
WOAH! Brutal Truth are legends, Turisas are festival crowd favourites, then us, then Cynic – who had just reformed after over a decade in retirement. We’d be the last band on our stage, Cynic would be the last band on the other stage so I could happily fool myself that we were co-headliner for the day. I’ve got video footage of the moment I found this new arrangement out and I actually stop chewing gum for a second and start giggling.
Then I started thinking battle tactics. It’s a terrible habit of mine. I start comparing my band to anyone else we’re playing with, and trying to see if we have an advantage we could exploit. Brutal Truth would be on our stage before us – legends, but their gig is musically sloppy. Turisas would then go on the other stage – great band, but not particularly heavy. We’d go on, and then Cynic would be after us – musically amazing, but they just kind of stand around playing their instruments instead of pasting the audience with power. Shit, I thought, not only are we going to be in a great position but we might actually come out well against these other bands. Our musicianship will beat Brutal Truth, our heaviness will crush Turisas, and we’ll be pouring more energy off the stage than Cynic. We agreed to the lineup change and finished getting ready.
Brutal Truth went on. I think they stopped one song about thirty seconds from the end because their drummer Rich forgot how it went. Some guy without any arms or legs got onstage with them to party. I went back to the cabin to do one last warm-up and think of things to yell at the audience. Turisas went on and started their show on the other stage. As soon as they got going, we got our gear up on our stage and got it ready. It looked like there might be disaster at one point when I realised I’d forgotten to bring a UK-Europe power adapter but Leon, true to form, had a spare. I gaffer-taped my leads down, and checked the mic was in a good position so I could sing into it and see my bass. God, the stage was huge. I could hear Ben warming up on the kit. People were starting to drift over. We did a foldback check and pasted our setlists around us. I looked at the guys. They looked at me. I saw our backdrop behind Ben, high up under the lighting rig. Turisas finished playing. We did one last check to make sure our instruments were properly amplified. The stage manager gave us the go ahead. We started playing.
We had done some rehearsing for this gig and played one show. I had personally done a lot more preparation though in the preceding months. I was jogging in my spare time, doing pushups and crunches. I’d rehearse the set twice a day and always do it after my exercises when I was most exhausted. I had a large mirror in my lounge room and I’d perform into it, not looking at my bass, and working out what looked like cool frontman moves and what looked like a dork. I practiced playing in the dark, practiced playing one handed so I could plug my lead back in, practiced finger-picking in case I dropped my pick. At that point in my life my long term relationship was crumbling and my job was shedding people left, right, and centre. I needed something to obsess about, something to keep me occupied, and I occupied myself with rehearsing and preparation. I was ready for this gig.
I’m not going to do a song-by-song breakdown or anything like that. But some highlights are worth noting. Big crowds are awesome. I remember looking out and the mind couldn’t really encapsulate how many people were out there. It was like a blur. I yelled out ‘HEY’ between songs and heard about a thousand people reply. That’s a rush, right there.
The playing was REALLY good. No car-crashes, no real stuff-ups (except for me starting ‘Wrath of God’ a little early). Ben was drumming extra-fast this evening but we were rehearsed, pumped, and the foldback was great so we rode it no problem. And my vocals were my best ever. I was in the zone. I remember I was so on-point that night I managed to walk away from the mic between verses of one song while bashing away on the bass, walk a couple of laps of stage, and recommence the next verse the moment I strode back to the microphone. It’s one of those simple things that is impossibly tricky to time. I did it without thinking, playing to the people sidestage, backstage, the other bandmembers, the crowd.
The crowd were pretty quiet during the show apart from the applause at the end of each song. There were a few fans up the front losing their shit, but everyone else was subdued and watching intently. They were trying to work out who these three office-worker types were, from some band they’d never heard of, who had suddenly appeared on the high end of the bill and were setting about totally destroying their set. They also had another reason to be confused. I neglected to mention the band name. Oops. I might have screeched it out once, but that night I learned a lesson about the big gigs: when you say your band name, say it many times and say it slowwwwly…ESPECIALLY when you’re playing to foreign crowds. Pretend you’re an Englishman in Spain somewhere trying to order chips.
The gig finished. There was a ten minute break before Cynic was going on. The crowd cheered, then drifted off to their stage. I looked at the guys. They looked at me. We did it. I packed my gear up, not quite able to believe we’d not only played our show, but played a great show. We stashed everything in the cabin and went sidestage to watch Cynic play. Other bands were there. Cynic started playing some of their old ‘Focus’ material. I looked at the crowd. They didn’t seem that into it. Quite a few of them had drifted off, probably back to their campsites for some sleep. I didn’t care. Sean Reinert was drumming just a few metres away. The guy was so fluid behind the kit, it was like watching a great dancer, or a kung-fu expert. You see his movements and know you’re in the presence of a master. I thought of a driving trip I had taken up the coast of Australia back when I was in high-school listening to their album. I could never have predicted I’d be watching them in such circumstances.
OK. The rest of the night was pretty tip-top. We got paid – not always a given with festivals. We got paid, Tomas the festival organiser was happy with the show, we got our itemized merch back with sale money and a receipt. Bob, in addition to being a soundman and a total freak, also had nifty tour-manager skillz and managed to get everything else wrapped up while we were basking in the post-gig glow. We got a lift back to the hotel where we’d be staying the night, riding with members of the band Grave (“I love you dudes, first heard you on Triple-J radio station in Oz back in the 90’s!” etc etc). Our driver was a madman superspy fella who dealt with a traffic problem by taking the vehicle offroad, finding an invisible side-road, and gunning down it in the dark.
Note: After writing this story down I asked Leon to check it for me and make sure nothing of note was missed. He sent me this -:
“One thing you didn’t mention was when that guy was driving us back to the hotel we had to cross to the wrong side of the motorway as there was that massive traffic jam, the driver changed lanes and started gunning down to find his invisible turnoff. Two huge articulated lorries were coming the other way blaring their horns, and Bob was asking the driver “how do you say suck my balls in Czech?” I was sure that was the last thing I was going to hear in my life but we just made it round the corner before the trucks got there.”
We got to our hotel alive and in reasonable time and sized it up. Nice. It was a big old place, set on the town square. The driver told us what time he’d be there in the morning to get us to our flight, unloaded our gear, and left us to it.
We got our room keys and divvied up rooms. Ben and I grabbed a room together and I went straight down to the lobby. I needed a goddamn drink. I required libations and celebrations. I went to reception and asked if they had a bar. The answer was no. But! They sold alcohol from reception! AND they accepted credit card! Just when I thought things couldn’t get better, I looked at their drinks menu. THEY HAD BECHEROVKA.
Becherovka is a potato vodka with a bit of a medicinal cinnamon taste. It goes down absolutely deliciously and I can rarely find the bloody stuff anywhere. But they sold it here in cheap little frozen aperitif bottles. I bought eight or so, and as many beers as I could carry. There were a couple of couches and a table in the lobby area so I sat down there and settled in for some drinking.
There were another couple of dudes down there drinking as well. One of them was the sound guy for Pain. He ended up giving us a bottle of Jagermeister. It was in the bands rider but they were all too exhausted or sick to drink. When a band is on tour it’s usually a given that at least half of them will be ill with something at any given point. I gratefully accepted the Jagermeister, and bummed a smoke off the other guy sitting with us. He was a nice mannered young dude. I asked him what his name was. He said Mathias. I asked if he was playing with the festival and he said he’d just played. Which band? Turisas, he replied.
WOAH! I asked if he wanted to get the rest of the band down to help with the jager but apparently they were already in their rooms asleep. I looked at Ben and Leon. I doubted if the few of us could handle the alcohol we were beginning to accumulate. We needed backup. Fortunately, the cavalry arrived: Brutal Truth.
The first time I met these guys was at a show in Melbourne in the early 90s. I lent a cigarette lighter to Danny Lilker so he could take a hit off a hash pipe just before playing. I looked over while he was toking. Rich, the drummer, had cut an acid tab in half. If my youthful memory serves correctly, he took half and gave the other half to Kevin. Then they started playing a set which went for over an hour. Somehow Rich was still able to function well enough to sell me the ‘machine parts’ EP after the show. THESE people can be my drinking buddies, I thought.
Kevin and Rich got involved. They had been drinking and smoking all afternoon. They tried some of the Becherovka, then had some Jagermeister. Then a little more. After a while, Rich casually got up and walked out the front of the hotel. There were big windows and the front door and lobby was all glass, so we could see him clearly. He stood at the top of the stairs and bent over taking deep breaths. He turned white, then green. Kevin was commentating: “Oh man, he’s fucked. He’s gonna throw up. Hahaha, oh yeah, he’s gone”. Somehow Rich managed to pull himself back from the brink and rejoin us at the table.
Cynic arrived back. I watched in silent awe as Paul Masvidal walked past. Didn’t consider offering him a drink. No-one plays music like that unless they subsist on tofu and spring water. There was an almighty crash. I looked at the front doors. Sean Reinert had run up the stairs carrying a drum flight case and a bag of spring water and had run straight into the doors, which were now cracked. Bottles of water had gone everywhere. I stepped out, pretty drunk.
“Can I help you there Sean?” I smirked. Must suck to be famous, smirking aussies you’ve never met walking up to you in the middle of europe addressing you by your name.
He kind of looked at me blankly. “I’ve….got to….get this water”
I helped him pick up the water, ensured the door was open, and he scurried inside and up to his room. Guess he won’t be drinking either, I thought.
I got back on it. The Brujeria dudes arrived. I saw Daniel Erlandsson, whom I’d met once or twice before. I waved the jagermeister bottle at him, taunting gently “Erland-sson……ERRRRLANDSON”. He backed away with fear on his face – “No. Oh no no no. Not jagermeister”.
It was a good night. I laugh when I see these facebook pages “Party Like A Rockstar”. They’re always pictures of insanely dressed people doing duck-pouts in plush looking venues with hot women everywhere. Get real. Rockstars don’t party, they’re usually in bed early when on tour so they don’t wreck the next show. Or if they’re up, they’re sharing convivial drinks with other industry people. You don’t have the energy after a big show to go wrecking rooms or pillaging wenches.
I woke up the next morning after about three hours sleep with barely even a hangover. I went downstairs for breakfast (food! we even got FED!) and saw Rich sitting at the breakfast table, chowing down. I was shocked. “But…but…but….I thought we’d KILLED you?” Nup, he was fine. Years of experience, I suppose.
Bob and Ben were missing. I found out later that Bob had seen a rather sussed picture of a man gobbling a sausage on the side of a lorry, and he’d basically forced Ben to join him on a citywide hunt to find the store that sold the offending product:
The lobby was full of bands all departing to their next gig, or their next festival appearance. One of the guys from Atheist was trying to get help, one of his bandmates was down with the flu. I pointed him over to the pharmacy across the square and reminded him to get a receipt to claim on his travel insurance. He thanked me and went. I thought, christ, you guys should have been Metallica-sized with ‘Piece of Time’. I heard a SMASH, and looked around. Sean Reinert was standing at reception, and had dropped change all over the floor. I gave him a hand picking it up.
“My…money” he stammered, trying to explain.
“Mate, seriously” I said. “Do you leave ALL of your co-ordination behind the kit?”
Our pickup van was on time. Kevin Sharpe gave me some goodbye shit about the carboard boxes I was transporting my bass in, then we headed to Prague, got our plane, arrived back in England. Paid, fed, gigged, partied, rested, and satisfied. Best gig ever. We waited for a shuttle to take us to our respective carparks. Bob watched black guys exiting customs suggesting they’d just held coups in their home countries, and checking his watch to see if he was going to be able to make that night’s swinger-club session. We laughed at his comments in that sort of way where you pretend you’re amused but are really worried that people will think you’re his friends, and shuffled away surreptitiously.
I got in my car and drove back to my home in Bournemouth, where I swiftly descended the peaks from that weekend. It was a great festival, an immense gig, and the last moment where it felt like life was perfect.
Footage from the show: