The Cardboard Swords Tour Photo Journal (Days 1-3)

Some background info: Tyler asked me to play drums for The Cardboard Swords’ west coast tour. Twenty-two days we’ll be on the road to make new friends and share songs expected to be part of the follow-up release. In the January chill, Luke, Jeremy, Tyler, and I sleep on floors and sweat in basements as we make our way to the Pacific and back.

Day One: Quad Cities, IL

The First Load: The blend of stress and needed precision to pack efficiently, to leave enough cramped room for body and mind.

After sacrificing larger, preferred instruments, Jeremy, Tyler, Luke, and I have to discriminate needed items facilitating three-weeks on the road. My drum set shrinks to being Tyler’s, Jeremy’s bass rig is now half itself, and the amount of clothing is reduced to a third. We discard wants to make room for needs as our hands, faces, and feet react most to the cold through this trial-and-error that will be our Packing Method following each show.a

“First the guitar amps to the left, then the drums to the right. The merch will be up here by the door, aaaaaand that leaves room for our bags on top.”

“What about the bass cab?”


Once packed, we head west to Rock Island, IL: a five-hour drive from Grand Rapids. I compare the first drive of tour with wearing new shoes for the first time. New shoes aren’t immediately the most comfortable, but they break in over time. And time spent in a packed van that’s traveling the west coast for twenty-two days is a pair of leather loafers worn in winter—stiff and cold. But soon I’ll form a mold into this van. The strength of cardboard will weaken, changing the box of vinyls into a welcoming arm rest. The jutting duffle to my right shoulder will support a slight lean of my head. 

We sit and talk before returning to music. Favorite songs and recent hits are shared and dissected. Time crawls through each album. I grab headphones to displace myself with Huerco S’s recent album For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have). It’s in the tour van where headphones become a dual-signifier, meaning both “Leave me alone” and “I don’t like this song.” The colors outside look both frozen and smoldering as we drive into the setting sun of January.

The venue on its outside looks like an old VFW hall. Its inside has walls scribbled with large markers available to draw or write whatever you wish. Quips and liners without context litter most of these surfaces. My favorite lines become “Yay Eli got crack” and “I hate the port authority.” Before I set up my drums, I look at the Christmas lights above the stage and think about that scene in Birdman when he walks into the liquor store.

The first show is my last practice as I make errors to be corrected later. I drop a stick mid-song and am unable to locate the spares I forgot to keep on the bass drum. While searching for my stick, I fumble my way to its location.

We try watching the last band as we figure out food and sleeping arrangements. I’m tired and cold.

We arrive at HyVee, a grocery store chain reminding me of Family Fare. Our plan is to grab food before heading to our host’s place to crash for the night. My last meal was the granola bar I planned to have for breakfast tomorrow, and the other guys haven’t had much other than Taco Bell. Under the brightest fluorescents, we zig-zag in a clump throughout the store, searching for quick and easy and non-messy food to prepare. After half an hour of indecision, I leave with a few local beers, chips & salsa, and microwavable pepper-chicken-and-rice.

I lay on a couch alongside new and familiar company, sharing in laughs and commentary with regard to How I Met Your Mother and the show’s ability to be liked so much without being that funny.

The hours before sleep dim to a stop. 

Day Two: Ames, IA

We wake up and keep a steady pace, gathering things and determining whether to shower now or risk not getting to later. I clog the toilet. Our host Scott can’t find a plunger, so we agree that the toilet water will make its way down before his parents get back.

Breakfast is spent in Davenport, at a McDonald’s with a few old couples in quiet and a young woman talking into her phone. We plan the day as we casually eat, checking our phones for local movie times. The hope is to see a movie before our Daytrotter session scheduled at three, but of the two movies of interest, La La Land is no option due to a promise Jeremy must keep, and Rogue One has been seen by half of the group. It’s around ten-thirty, and since a movie is no longer feasible, we decide to drive around the area in search of a repair kit for Tyler’s sleeping pad.

We end up inside Active Endeavors, a store specializing in outdoor gear. Tyler seeks out his kit while each of us wanders through the sky-lit building. The repair kit is unavailable, so we reconvene back in the van. It’s now eleven and we have no idea how to spend the next few hours. Jeremy takes to Trip Advisor and finds the Top 10 Things To Do in Davenport. Of the available mentions, we decide on the cheapest and quickest one: Vander Veer Botanical Park.

The botanical park has a walkway which curves through many clusters of plant life. Apart from our presence, an older couple hold hands as they drift to each arrangement. The air is warmer here.

After we circle the garden a few times, we go back to the van to hear that there is a scheduling conflict at Daytrotter. We discuss heading toward Ames early, during which a group of teens attempt playing hockey on the lagoon ahead. Two larger boys use a stick and windshield scraper to maneuver the puck back and forth.

The show is in a basement meant for shows. Sound material hangs within the corner each band wedges themselves into. Light bars add an indigo hue to the bright-white walls , creating an 80’s Miami night club vibe though nothing but the wails of emo or screeches of punk are heard here.

I sit in the living room as Cardboard Swords wait to play fourth of five tonight. A five-band show (or more) can be exhausting. Hearing you’re walking into a five-band gig is equivalent to receiving word that a mandatory two-hour meeting will follow your workday. It’s a lot more time in your night; there’s a lot more names to try remembering; gear forms a heap in a cramped room to finesse.

I play with my sticks at the end of a large couch when (right to left) Keller, Andrew, and Erin sit next to me. They inform me they are looking forward to seeing Cardboard Swords play. I thank them before having to explain that I’m not with the band anymore, that I came to help out and see the west. We discuss technical-manual writing, economics in regard to social behavior, and foreign relations—particular areas of study they seek.

Always engage those with whom you share a couch. You’ll be surprised how well disguised a new friend can be.

The show went better than last night’s.

Luke and I sit with the gear inside the van, waiting for Tyler and Jeremy to finish hanging out with Kayak Jones. I eat the leftover cheese bread from earlier, which is cold but easy to chew. I think about tapping the horn but I don’t.

We’re back at Jesse’s house to crash. His upstairs mostly is empty rooms since he’s between roommates. All our sleeping pads fit with room to spare. Outside the bathroom, the cat slaps the door knob as I shower.

Day Three: Omaha, NE

The morning comes with Ty starting a bowl and offering a wake-and-bake to each of us. He finishes it to himself as I inspect the color of my snot and clear my throat a few times to produce a sample. Nothing looks odd, so I take another vitamin and chug my water. We stay in our beds awhile to discuss the plan and drive-time for Omaha.

Tyler makes breakfast with the few clean tools he can find around the pile, and while I poke around for a spoon to wash, I ask myself how someone can live like this. Then it hits me that having a messy place is the easiest excuse to forgo hosting altogether, that not being judged for the shape of your home is important to some people. Yes, the collection of used dishes and old food are presumed to have such and such a reason behind it. But this counter says “Rain or shine, you are welcome here.”

After we eat, I realize I left my snare at last night’s gig.

We pack and bolt.

Our drive to Omaha goes by relatively smoothly until we are just outside Des Moines, on I-80W. The pavement reacts with our tires, producing a faint pitch we’re unsure to be concerned of. Curious looks are noticed and the music is lowered to diagnose better. Then a smoother patch of concrete passes under the van, which gives pause to the muffled shrieking, putting us at ease. Without having to say it, we forgo an investigative pull-over—or (as I saw it) a chance to pee.

We get word that our host for the night, Alex, recommends we stop into an ice cream shop whose employees have been informed of our visit. Free ice cream is mentioned. We walk into Ted & Wally’s unsure how to go about the handout process. Do we just say “Yo, we’re Alex’s buddies,” and am I saying it or is Tyler going to? Being awkward and unsure can come with these interactions, but we trickle up to the counter and manage to meet Duffy and a lady whose name I’ve forgotten. (Tour and remembering names.) We receive quality ice cream in good company.

With time to waste, we play around in Ground Floor Guitar. I sit on a couch with a pair of sticks I purchased to practice on my thighs. Tyler sits in front of an amp and strums bits of our set, pausing only to twist dials in directions closer to taste. Jeremy also has a guitar in his lap, and Luke is somewhere behind my view. We tinker awhile before gradually sharing the understanding that time has passed.

Luke is a vegetarian, and come each food-stop I’m thankful he is not a vegan. Nor Tyler and Jeremy. Touring with a vegan is hard for the vegan and the rest of the party. Decisions are very limited with regard to fast-food diets, so if a band is unable to cook their own food, the options tend to be scarcely something nutritious for the restricted-diet person. We’re able to grocery shop for a homemade vegetarian chili Tyler prepares for our host, Alex, and the band. (That’s two meals Tyler’s prepared today. Chef Ty-Baby Swag.)

The air has lost its icy quality as we exit the van for load-in. The backs of my knees feel sweaty, so I decide to remove my long underwear for the first time. After unloading, we bounce around and into each other until we huddle in the van for a quick one.

The opening band has a girl, Emily (?), who plays keys and sings although I can’t hear her in the mix. I witness the soundcheck of each member, and I’m concerned when the band approves her levels. I wonder if it’s my hearing, and I’m trying not to be that guy at shows who has something to say about the mix; and so while I subdue myself, I come to think that maybe she’s a new addition to the band. That maybe the guys are trying to keep her turned down in a polite and subtle fashion. Saying “No, no. Perfect. Your levels are prefect!” all while feeling at ease she won’t interfere with their sound—which is a fucked up thought, I know. I’m trying to understand why her inclusion is buried and dominated. I want to hear her, so I yell between songs that I can’t hear any keys. I say it again until they look at me and make adjustments. And I don’t feel intrusive because I feel I’m speaking for her and the audience. I’m saying, in an implicit fashion, “If you’re gonna have keys and a female voice, let me fucking hear it, boys!” The band exchanges looks and makes adjustments, and as they continue their set, still my ears get but a whiff of her presence.

We make our way back to Alex’s to watch early episodes of The Office until one by one each sleeping pad is inflated and occupied.

This was posted 6 months ago by Ryan Stailey.
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