On Tour with Tiny Ruins
Tiny Ruins live at the Crystal Palace.
Recorded and mixed by Andre Upston
Live sound by Rohan Evans
Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins)
I'm writing this from the van as we approach North Carolina. It’s a bright day in the Fall, and this week we’ve driven through Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia, leaving behind swampy Mississippi for the chillier Appalachian mountains where the trees are changing colour.
I've been on tour for the better part of six months now, the last four of which have been as a three-piece with Cass Basil and Alex Freer. We’ll have played close to 80 shows by the time we get home, and this is following a New Zealand tour, and a solo tour of Europe before that so - to be frank - we're knackered. Touring is a never-ending, unravelling newness. The first days leave you jittery and irritable, but you adjust to the constant movement.
Heading across the ditch on the first of July, we toured with our label mates Shining Bird for ten days. We listened to their album Leisure Coast a bunch, and Courtney Barnett’s Sea of Split Peas as we drove about NSW and WA. I think during that time we also listened to Popstrangers’ new album Fortuna. We seem to gravitate toward music that roughly relates to the environment we're driving through, so it was pretty Antipodean for the first couple of weeks.
Music gets us through the hours in the van. We listen to albums in full, enjoying them more with repeated listens. It's my favourite way to hear records - you make your mind up about lots of things during the course of an album. You figure out your own personality a bit - sorta like reading. The first listen is sort of an affront, and you're not sure you connect to it. The second listen, you remember a couple of things, a few musical ideas, that you get a kick out of. The third time, you start analysing the lyrics a bit, and that's when I tend to either fall in love with something or let it pass. I fall quite deep for music I connect to past the third listen.
There are always classic driving favourites like Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. The Beatles Revolver and Abby Road also spring to mind, and a refreshing blast of Toy Love at one stage. In the UK we listened to Cate Le Bon’s Mug Museum several times over, Jenny Lewis, Stereolab, and St. Vincent’s new one . . . as well as a solid dash of Boyz 2 Men as we approached the End of the Road Festival.
After Australia, we landed in LA during the hot weeks of August and headed up the West Coast, where I began reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden. There was no better place to read it than driving through that very landscape . . . and it was good. Great, in fact. Some of Steinbeck’s writing shows its age now, but I love how conversational, funny and vivid it is. He's one of the most personable, comforting, friendly sort of writers I can think of, and the book was especially grounding given how overwhelming the tour felt at that stage, with so many weeks ahead of us.
Touring's also a good time for catching up on the year's releases. When drove through California we listened to Sun Kil Moon’s Benji several times as we made our way to Seattle. Once in Canada, we enjoyed Mac de Marco’s Salad Days and Chad Van Gaalen's Shrink Dust. We also spent time with The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream, revisited Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo and of course played a lot of Sharon Van Etten - Are We There and Epic especially - in anticipation of touring with her. I enjoyed the brazenness of Benji, the grooves and fun of Salad Days, the sweetness of Shrink Dust, the cinematically dark soundscapes of the Drugs and Vile, and the heartbreaking honesty of Are We There. All were sort of subtly connected to our tour in some way, be it that we were on the same label, or we met someone or stayed with someone connected to these artists. There is always some small trigger that will get one of us buying or downloading someone's album to listen to in the van.
I remember well before I began releasing my own music, I read the first draft of Ian Jorgensen’s Local Knowledge, and there was a bit in there that struck me: he said something along the lines of having to approach touring as an unconventional but - with a bit of luck and hard work - a sustainable way of life. You normally pay rent, work a day job, and sleep in the same flat every night. It’s just a matter of changing your priorities a little - spending that ‘rent’ instead on flights and petrol. He made it sound do-able, at least. It’s taken us a good few years and quite a bit of me touring solo, as well as a number of Outward Sound grants, to get to the stage where we we can leave the country together with our gear, hire a van to make our way across these continents, and have enough shows booked to keep us out of mountains of debt. But it’s happened. And though there are moments on tour where you are seriously fed up, there are more moments where I thank my lucky stars I get to do this.
On tour, your few belongings take on new significance. My coat has seen better days. I have worn it into the ground. But you know what? It’s earned its place in the suitcase. New intruders are easy to come by. But the old jacket will not be thrust out. It serves as an extra blanket in a cold motel room, or a pillow in the van, or on a cold bench at the back of a stage.
The jeans that were once black are now a worn criss-cross of pale grey and dark grey rough cotton. Kind of like an old flannel shirt, in pant form. You would love them if they weren’t your only pair. The other jeans are too tight (a huge touring mistake), from the tour weight gain. Yes, there is weight gain. Unless you’re our drummer. Or muscle-re-distribution, however you want to put it. Your body enters into a sort of sitting mode. You lose sense of social norms, finding yourself doing exercises in gas stations. You visualise running, swimming, walking during van-ridden hours and motel mornings, and you vow to appreciate these freedoms once home.
The humble iron, the sweet sweet hairdryer, the rare and endangered electric kettle - these appliances have also grown in my estimation. The blessed laundry. Touring can be briefly summed up in the buying of 5 pairs of old ladies’ underwear by accident, yes, the ones that come up to your ribcage, keeping them anyway, just in case, and then finding yourself wearing them regularly. Are they in the shape of knickers, and are they clean? Worth their weight in gold. Socks, too. You lose a bit of your personality. Or perhaps touring reduces you to only your personality? Everything has to be a bit more functional. Clean socks, like clean underwear, are the thing that, after a dribbling morning shower in that damp, grimy 50s plastered motel bathroom, can make you feel like a million bucks.
Touring can be briefly summed up in the buying of 5 pairs of old ladies’ underwear by accident, yes, the ones that come up to your ribcage, keeping them anyway, just in case, and then finding yourself wearing them regularly.
Since coming back to the USA and heading down to the South, we’ve been listening to Lucinda Williams, The Dream, Connan Mockasin, Outkast, Nina Simone, and some older jazz stuff. We meet a lot of bands and pick up their CDs, or remember their music while on the road, such as Jefferson Hamer, Your Friend, Joey Sweeney, Maria Somerville, and Basia Bulat.
The small window at the end of the night - that hour or so that you stand on the stage and play music to some people who are listening . . . that’s the crux of it all. We’ve had a handful of clangers on this tour - the shows that take the remnants of your ego and put them through the wringer. But when it does go right, it’s a bloody joy! Those moments on stage when we are all musically present and playing to a good crowd are some of the happiest of my life. It sounds corny, but it really does come down to the people who turn up to the show - some have driven hours to see you, some have made you little gifts . . . you talk to people afterwards and get this sort of insulin-shot of support and it really gives you the sense that it has been worthwhile.
I don’t get to see many films while we’re on tour. I’d rather listen to music, read or work on stuff in the van, so it’s really only when we take a flight that I zone out and watch several in a row. Watching a great film on a big screen is something I miss most about being at home. But films that are sort of swimming around in my head right now are Mullholland Drive and Blue Velvet, which I re-watched recently. Lynch is a good one to ponder whilst traipsing around the USA. It adds mystique to some of the more dire motels and diners we find ourselves in.
What are the hardest things? Of course missing home. Missing people. More tricky though, is to be your better self day after day. It gets challenging - it’s like a marriage or something. After weeks on the road, you have to remind yourself not to be selfish - to do kind things for each other. Everyone has the potential to be their worst self. You’ve got to do away with any unreasonable amounts of grumpiness or bluntness. You learn how you can be a pain in the arse and how to deal with that, how to apologise and laugh at yourself and at each other.
Touring lets you flirt with all sorts of possible lives and worlds. You get rid of lots of crap, distracting thoughts, and from time to time experience little epiphanies or moments of realisation about, you know, life and stuff. You reach a sort of blank canvas state of being, where in even the most dire and disastrous of moments, the words ‘it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry’ pass casually through your mind. In short, it drives you right to the edge and leaves you there for a bit to appreciate the view.