By Dylan K.
Have you ever driven an unregistered van halfway across the country, spent your last hundred dollars on a tattoo, skinny-dipped with total strangers at three in the morning or got a trial membership at a gym just to use the shower? During the first few weeks of August 2011, I grabbed my bass guitar and joined my humble little Calgary rock band, The Nix Dicksons, on tour to Ontario to promote our new album The Red Fox. It was our first official cross-country tour since the band’s inception a little over three years ago, and it was the cliche rock ‘n’ roll experience we’d all wished for (and more). The only reason we survived the whole thing was a combination of luck, fearlessness and the kindness of strangers. This is our tale.
We borrowed our friend Connor’s van, but the night before we were supposed to hit the road we were informed that the van wasn’t registered or insured. We may or may not have driven through Eastern Canada in an unregistered, uninsured van, with someone else’s registration stickers. Oh, and our drummer Cole may have driven part of the way too, which is fine, other than the fact that his license is suspended (for driving without a license). He had a court date a few days before our tour started to figure out what was happening with his charges, which potentially could have involved some jail time.
Driving a partially illegal vehicle can actually be a good thing sometimes, since it makes you careful to keep to the speed limit and obey all traffic laws. When you’re in a band, you can usually expect everything to go wrong, especially when it’s inconvenient. The Nix Dicksons’s luck goes from absolute shit to almost miraculous at times, and we’ve had to become good at adapting and rolling with the punches.
Sometimes, though, the punches you have to roll with are actual. We played a Monday night in Toronto at The Drake, a hipster hotel hangout. Tensions were a little high among us all since the previous night when we found ourselves in Barrie, opening last-minute for a mid-life crisis cover band. As a result, we’d all had next-to-no sleep. We played pretty early in Toronto the next night, and after our set, our guitarist Rob was looking for help loading gear since the rest of us had bailed to drink. While I was talking to an awesome girl named Frances who said we could sleep in her backyard that night, Rob physically grabbed me and started dragging me to the van to help him load it. I shoved him and told him to get his hands off me, but he grabbed me again. This led to us pushing each other back and forth until he threw a haymaker at the side of my face. It didn’t connect properly, so I didn’t get knocked out or a black eye, but it still hurt a bit. Meanwhile, frontman Tanner and Cole had been engaged in a shouting match down the street, but Tanner managed to break up Rob and I before the fight escalated further. I was so upset that Rob hit me that I just verbally lost it on him, calling him basically everything in the book.
The fact that he punched me wasn’t really what I was upset about. I was more upset that we were probably out of Frances’s good books and would also have no place to stay that night. When you’re in the big city, you have to be good to her people, or else the city won’t be good to you.
As the drunk poet Craig Finn of Brooklyn band The Hold Steady once mused, “We’re good guys, but we can’t be good every night.” Sometimes I think Craig Finn could have written that line about us. We had spent the last year being drunk and arrogant about our band, and this didn’t help us out at all. Two weeks before the tour, we sat down and talked about what we needed to do as a band to make progress and move forward, and a big one was to change our piss-poor attitude. On tour, we tried to be as humble as we could and to kill everyone with more kindness than we may have showed each other. This helped us meet some key people, both professionally and as friends. This strategy worked that night at The Drake, as it turned out we were still in Frances’s good books, and she said we could all sleep at her place (minus Rob). We told Rob to get a hotel for the night so we could all cool our jets before our show the next night, so we called him a cab and parted ways. Frances and her friend snuck us over a fence into a public pool, where we went skinny-dipping at 3 a.m. after our show. We went back to her house and she gave us all sleeping bags and tucked us in. We all shared bedtime stories with her until we fell asleep. She felt bad for making us sleep on the ground outside, but she had the most beautiful backyard in all of Toronto, so we didn’t mind at all. The fact that we were so grateful to sleep in sleeping bags in a backyard made me realize that there are lots of things we take for granted at home, even seemingly mundane ones like having a shower.
The reality of playing in a band is that it’s not just about the music.
You have to look at least somewhat presentable too, and at this juncture we hadn’t showered in three days and looked absolutely haggard. We did what anyone else might do in this situation — we tried to sign up for free ten-day trial memberships at the local Extreme Fitness just so we could use the shower and steam room. The manager looked us all over once and said, “You guys are in a band, aren’t you?” We admitted we were, shot the shit with him for a bit and gave him an album. He told us the trials were technically only for Toronto residents, but that he’d let us use the facilities for the day.
It was the most incredible shower of my life. I think Extreme Fitness is what the gyms are like in heaven. There’s a steam room, flat-screen TVs and couches, and internet access. It also turned out that the gym was having a promotion for some new fitness product that day, and to celebrate, they were giving out glasses of champagne and orange juice. We all felt like kings, and realized how much good a daily shower does to you without you even realizing it.
Eating on the road can feel like a bit of a luxury, too, since it gets expensive. It’s also tough if you spend your last hundred bucks on a tattoo, which is what Cole did. The bank froze his account about halfway through the tour, and for four days he survived on french fries, bummed cigarettes and wine that we donated to him. Cole once told me that “When you don’t eat, it makes your liquor go farther.” This rationale for starving yourself now makes total sense to me.
We were lucky to be treated so well by people we’d just met, but our luckiest city by far was Peterborough. We showed up in the ‘Borough at seven in the morning, pulled into a dusty parking lot and Rob and I crashed in the van until the 35-degree weather woke us up sweating. Cole wandered around the city while we slept and came back with horror stories about the types of people populating the downtown strip.
A good portion of the local youth were what we termed “Durst-y,” which means that they wore baggy jeans, backwards red Yankees caps and just generally seemed like they were looking for a fight (in true Fred Durst fashion). Cole almost quenched someone’s Durst and got stabbed one night, and the second day we were there, we saw four people getting arrested on four separate occasions.
We were all pretty worried that we’d be playing to no one in Peterborough since the well-known local opener, usually one to draw a crowd to the bar, had bailed the day of our show. Before the tour, we’d had download cards of our new album made, so we basically used these as business cards to advertise our show that night to random passers-by. We split into groups of two and just approached people downtown (with a little busking along the way), trying not to come off as weirdos or serial murderers. I’m not usually the most outgoing person in the world, but I had to suck it up and engage people, and it worked.
We probably would have played for nobody at all had we not hit the streets and kept soliciting people after getting rejected, sort of like the mid-life crisis dudes at the Den who try to pick up 18-year-olds on Thursdays.
After our show a few of Cody’s sister’s friends took us skinny-dipping Ontario-style for the second time at a place called Hippie Island. Apparently, this is what young people do once the bars close. Tanner, Cole and I were all basically blacked-out drunk at this point. We could barely stand, let alone swim, but we toughed it out so we didn’t look like total pussies in front of our new friends. We stumbled back to the band dressing room they were letting us sleep in above the bar, stoked on how serendipitous the night had been.
The road isn’t always kind, but much like the big city, if you’re good to her, she’ll treat you right. Being on tour is a real test of whether your band is cut out to play music, since it gets you out of your comfort zone and, at times, your clothes.
I learned that you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen, whether it’s sleeping outside, soliciting people to come see you play or taking advantage of whatever is free. You also need to be kind to whoever you meet, because they may end up becoming your best friend or a fellow musician. When fearlessness and kindness fail you, sometimes you have to rely on your luck to get you out of a sticky situation.
Fortunately, The Nix Dicksons have that in spades, and after our first cross-country tour together, we have the clean criminal records and foggy recollections to prove it.