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JU 2013 Tour part two: In Which Johnny Tells of How He Made It To the Show On an Empty Gas Tank

 

Another apology, with excuses: I’ve been working obsessively on my two next albums, and their corresponding album covers. I decided to rewrite the lyrics of a 17 minute long song, and I’ve spend dozens of hours agonizing over the lyrics in order to turn them from mediocre to adequate. Hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised when it’s finished. I’ve also been working with Autumn Electric as bassist, and we’re about to record a new album, and this time we’re trying to minimize the number of overdubs we have to do, so we’ve been rehearsing a lot. In addition to that, I’ve been working with Horace Pickett on a new album, and Phideaux on several new albums. I’m fairly busy, but I do have a lot of freetime. Unfortunately, I get very tired and headachy during that freetime. Perhaps it’s foolish to think I can come out with two more albums (one of them a double-album) in the next year and tour twice. Or maybe it’s not. I’ll be honest, I’m really just trying to get this stuff that’s been sitting on my hard drives for years out there, so I can stop worrying about it. Right now, I’m having trouble getting any of that stuff done, so here’s part two of my account of the Jam Unit Summer tour 2013:

Before leaving town for our month long tour of the Northern United States, the Jam Unit and I performed a going-away show in our homebase of Seattle. The show took place on July 11th at the Comet Tavern. We shared the stage with two of my favorite bands, Horace Pickett and Autumn Electric (I liked them so much I joined them: Horace Pickett in 2010 and Autumn Electric just the other week) as well as a touring band – from Salt Lake City of all places – called Pentagraham Crackers. Everyone played admirably, and the whole night was great fun. We debuted my new song “Tinnitus” and I think I got most of the words right. It’s hard to tell. It went by so quickly that I can’t properly reflect on it. I remembered being incredibly nervous for some reason, and sweating a lot. The current animated .gif on johnnyunicorn.com is made up of photos taken by Mike Brown at that show. You can see me sweating.

Two days later, we woke up at the crack of dawn and loaded the van with stuff and bandmembers and headed off to our first of two shows that day. Our first show of the day was to take place in the early afternoon outdoors in LaGrande, Oregon, five hours away from Seattle, for KEOL’s anniversary weekend. Due to a temporary misplacing of the envelope full of tour money, we were a little bit late getting on the road, but I had resolved to make good time, so I was sure we would arrive with plenty of time to set up. We only had a vague idea of our start time, but thanks to having internet in the van, we were able to find out that they were expecting us about an hour earlier than we could possibly get there. From that point on it was all sweat and anxiety. It was our first out of town show on the tour and it looked like we were going to drop the ball already. My own failure would lead to the humiliation of everyone in the band. Unprofessional. We only had one option, so we sent word out that we would be arriving late, and we eventually were able to get a hold of the event coordinator who told us not to worry, than everything was cool, and that the schdule was loose, and that we’d be able to play as soon as we got there. Phew! Now that that terrifying moment was over, and we were about 45 minutes from the venue, I looked down at the gas gauge and saw that it was at “empty.” At that moment we frantically searched for the nearest gas station. The next gas station on the way was in the town we were playing. There was a slightly closer gas station, but it was so far out of the way that if we had gone there we would be another hour late, and I didn’t want to make another call to the event coordinator just to tell him we’d be another hour late because I forgot to get gas. So, we decided to just go for it. As Tom Petty said, “Damn the Torpedoes.” It was a tense drive. I had nothing to compare it to at the time, but now that I’ve seen the movie Gravity, I can tell you it was very much like that one scene (you know the one). And with nothing but fumes and faith, we managed to get all the way into town without sputtering to a stop on the side of the freeway. My whole body was shaking when I finally pulled into the gas station to fill up my tank. I think I had to use the toilet that whole time, too, but I can’t remember. We performed on an outdoor stage in a parking lot in front of a modest crowd of people who were very into the show. Unfortunately, there were no clouds, and the entire audience was about 100 feet away from the stage in the shade of the buildings. But they liked our show, and they bought the albums, and nobody got hurt.

Then we had exactly four hours to get to a house show in Spokane, which was four hours away, so we shook everyone’s hands and loaded up our gear and bolted out of there like a thief in the night. I would have liked to stay, but these two shows had to happen on Saturday, and I really wanted to play both of them. The drive up to Spokane was not as bad. Starting then, we stuck to the rule that we would get gas when the tank was half empty. We arrived at Liz Rognes’ house just as Glenn Case’s solo set was ending. Then Liz Rognes played. This was the first time I’ve seen her play piano, and I was blown away. Buffalo Jones performed drumless, and allowed me to sit in on beatbox for Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” That was probably one of the weirdest moments of my musical life. Then we performed, and I think we did a great job. But if you want proof, that performance is floating around on the internet somewhere. It was webcast live. You can’t see Naomi in the video, but I assure you, she’s there providing all the bass and a lot of the chords. And then we slept, and it was the kind of sleep that starts too late and ends too early; the kind of sleep I expected we’d have every night for the next month.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned. Next time, I’ll be talking about Missoula, an ambiguous album review, and our time in the wilderness. Until then, toodeloo.

JU 2013 Tour part one: The Secret of the Unit

Car!

Photo by Mike Brown

 

Firstly, I would like to apologize for waiting so long to begin my account of the Johnny Unicorn and His Jam Unit tour. And immediately after the apology I would like to make an excuse: booking shows, driving to them, and playing them requires so much of my emotional and physical energy that I needed to wait until two weeks after I returned home to even have the slightest motivation to begin writing about the it. So, here it is, part one of a series of perhaps dozens of posts on the Jam Unit tour, and it starts further in the past than you might have thought:

I had toured a number of times before on my own, and when I did so, I was literally on my own. I used sequences that I put together on an Ensoniq SD-1 as backing tracks, while I performed guitar, accordion, keyboard, saxophone and vocals. Since I was bound to the irrevocable rhythm of the machine, I was extremely limited in how much I could direct the flow of the songs, and since I am at best a mediocre player of any of my instruments, i was forced to play mostly my simplest songs. But, through a series of serendipitous and unexplainable events, I wound up with a small group of loyal and excellent musicians playing my music. Naomi Adele Smith (of Autumn Electric) first joined me on synthesizers, then Jesse Mercury joined on synth drums. Later, Max Steiner (also of Autumn Electric) joined on the guitar, which finally freed me up to stop ruining the songs with my hands. I decided I could never go back to the solo act again, because I loved the way the new band sounded. At the same time, I had just released my exercise album, “Sadness And Companionship.” I thought it was quite likely that the people who were digging the music I had to offer on previous tours would probably enjoy this new stuff performed by this new band. So I bought a van and enlisted the booking help of my friend Michael Trew and with much excitement we booked a tour for the Summer of 2013 with my new band (with Max’s brother Ian filling in on drums because Jesse regrettably couldn’t go). The band is called the Jam Unit. Remember that.

We dipped our toes in the water with a pre-tour out of town show in Anacortes, WA. Before this, the only thing I knew about Anacortes was that it was where you went to get on the ferry to go to the islands. I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when I stepped out of the van and was greeted by an actual city with stuff going on. One of that stuff was my band; my Jam Unit. The four of us, anxious about having to perform the longest of our tour sets on the very first night, stepped into the Brown Lantern with optimistic caution. Would they receive us with open arms and hospitality and provide us with all the necessary equipment to do a quality show, or would they hold us up against the wall by the throat and threaten us with further physical violence if we didn’t increase their alcohol sales? Fortunately, it turned out to be the former!

What I remember of the show now is mostly a blur of dark red and orange (as is my memory of almost every nightclub I’ve been in, except for the really fancy ones, which I usually remember as some shade of blue) and the nervousness of playing our very first show with this lineup. I probably don’t have to mention that there were plenty of “not-what-I-remember-from-rehearsal” moments, and for the first hour and a half, I was painfully aware of the fact that one shouldn’t wear a wizard robe to play fast music, and if one is going to wear a wizard robe, one should make sure to bring a pair of wizard shoes as well, because nothing else matches. But aside from those technical difficulties, we were received very well and we even connected with a few of the people that were there. And the management seemed pleased with how we performed our job. As a bonus, we learned about the real power of the “Jam Unit” name. It turns out that the phrase has at least one NSFW connotation, and that makes it a conversation piece, and therefore memorable. The guys that drew our attention to this fact were entirely unaware of my true intention in creating the name, which was to have a band name that had the same initials as my stage name.

With this success behind us, we proceeded to rush back to Seattle in the dark hours of the night, so we could sit in our homes, twiddling our thumbs for a week, waiting for the tour to start in earnest.

Kickstarting Sadness And Companionship

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http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1749889331/johnny-unicorn-exercise-album-and-subsequent-tour

I am finally finished recording my exercise album, “Sadness And Companionship.” It just needs to be put together and promoted, and that is why I’ve started a Kickstarter project. I’ve already sent out e-mails and made a number of posts on social media about it, but I think it’s time to make a blog post about it.

My goal for this album is fairly simple: to create a piece of music that can accompany an aerobic workout, but that relies on different musical tools than that which we’ve come to expect from workout music. In my own personal experience, I’ve had moments where I’ve been into techno music, but most of the time I want to listen to music that has lots of complicated parts and interesting concepts. But when I want to put on a piece of music that does a good job of keeping up with the increased heart-rate of an aerobic workout, that complicated music usually doesn’t work. The relentlessness of a techno song seems makes it perfect for exercising. But music with a lot of dynamics is not ideal. A Gentle Giant song might be very energetic, but out of nowhere it can suddenly switch to a harpsichord/recorder section, and throw off your workout completely.

So I took up the task of creating a progressive rock workout album. This way, at least one album would exist that could at once get my blood flowing non-stop for thirty minutes and keep my brain engaged in the way that I like. I think I succeeded in that. I also added a couple of remixes to the album, so it wouldn’t be so short. Those remixes are not really for exercise purposes, though.

Sadly, I have some negative associations with exercise. It all started in fifth grade soccer. That was when the other kids started actually being concerned about whether they would win or lose the next game. I enjoyed running around a field kicking a ball, observing a few rules of the game just to make it a little more challenging, but when these kids started getting competitive, it was an immediate turn off. so I quit. In sixth grade, I was forced to go to a swimming pool, where we had to get naked in front of everyone and then put on shorts that were way too short before being marched out to a pool where we were made to…I don’t even remember. I can’t remember the swimming part of those experiences, only the standing around in those ridiculous shorts. Actually, I remember diving. With eardrums like mine, going into water head-first is frightening. I don’t remember doing anything in high-school gym class, either. I remember kids coming up to me and pretending to throw basketballs at my head but at the last second catching them so they could make me flinch. Most of the time, they were never any worse than that to me. I remember being required to sign up for gym class one year, but not being allowed to sign up for art class (because I was already in band).

I’m not saying that these things bare the full responsibility for turning me sedentary. I’m just trying to give you a little background on me. Whenever I hear sports commentators or sports terminology (like “hustle up”), whenever I see a television screen with some green arena with a bunch of white lines all over it, or whenever I just look at a pair of sneakers, or the material that basketball shorts are made out of, I shudder a little. But I don’t want to be that way anymore. I want to overcome my fear of going outside in sneakers and shorts. This exercise album is part of that larger project to adopt a more active lifestyle. At this ripe old age, I’ve begun to realize just how fragile the human body is, and how important it is to keep it running smoothly for as long as possible. I’ve got a lot of stuff I want to do before Death finally closes its icy fingers around me.

Do you feel that way too? Maybe this is an album that you would like. Please pledge on my Kickstarter page. Remember, no amount is too large. And this is no donation. When you pay money, I will be doing work for you. I’ve already promised to do a whole lot of visual art so far. I’d like to write more songs for people. If you’ve ever wanted to have your own theme song, now’s the time to act. I have a less expensive “jingle” option, which means I’ll write a short radio jingle for you. It will be essentially a 10-15 second catchy melody with your name in it and brief lyrics about how great you are. You can put it at the beginning of your youtube videos or on the outgoing message of your voicemail system.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1749889331/johnny-unicorn-exercise-album-and-subsequent-tour

Anyway, thanks for reading this. I have to go stretch now.

-John

Plack, Smith and Unicorn West Coast Tour Diary Part One

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Photo courtesy of Tamberlie at the Triangle.

O merciless heavens!

The prickly drizzle unregrettingly penetrated my too-thin vestiments, sticking cotton to flesh. No time for retreating to the warm comforts of the indoors, however, bound to the tour schedule as we were. Autumn Electric on tour with Plack, Smith and Unicorn! It promised to be an exciting and educational voyage; possibly lucrative, but probably not. The trip to Portland was cramped and damp, with sharp metal objects placed precariously behind us, shaking, as if anxiously awaiting the chance to kill. I hoped that probability and the laws of motion would have the decency to deny them that chance until we had time to pack properly.

We first performed at the Lents Commons coffee house. There, in front of an intimate audience, and with our first nachos of the tour rolling around happily in our bellies, we made our music. For PSU, it was our first out of town performance. I was not certain the audience knew what to think of our opening number, what with the free-jazz noise section…but they apparently got it, and it seemed that the owner was happy he booked us. I’m happy he did, too.

Our next stop was the Triangle in out-of-the-way Salem, Oregon. We had no idea what to expect. All we knew was that we were the closing acts of an open mic, which at the time seemed a grim prospect, but one that nevertheless we were hired for. So, in the spirit of professionalism, we showed up at the bar, ready for anything. The open mic turned out to be mainly a blues jam, and everyone was great at what they were doing. We still feared what they would think about our act, but when we finished, we got nothing but compliments. They truly liked it, and I learned this: Trust your audience!

Next time I will tell you all about the nation of California.