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JU 2013 Tour part one: The Secret of the Unit


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.


Johnny Unicorn 2011 Summer Tour Part Four Part Two

Michigan, U.S.A. – In the muggy mists of Michigan’s musty west I take a rest. With family, friends and foes from distant pasts I reunite. Mosquitoes thirstily drink my blood. Growls and tiny bleeps in the blackness of the nightwoods betray either terrible animal murder, or something much nicer; I never find out. The lake never has waves; I am forced to wade in still water so cold my feet freeze and returning to shore becomes difficult. Deadly solar heat only breaks for a horrifying storm: rain that sounds like a million frogs falling onto a lake of maple syrup and lightning that is as bright as the sun and almost as frequent. A small pool of swamp water builds on the floor of my car.

Tour: Eastern leg:

GTG Fest part two: Lansing, MI’s GTG throws their second of three shows. It’s Josh David and the Dream Jeans (check out “Aware of the Riverman”), Cavalcade and me. The audience is so good that it’s overwhelming, and I’m not even sure what to do. I fear that I could have done better for them. But they get to see part of the Universe music band. Naomi plays synth for half the set. The Plurals’ Hattie Plural sits in for a couple of the songs also!

Next I go to Lawton, Michigan’s Old Hat Brewery, where I play a long solo show. The audience is the best first-time audience ever. The show puts the whole tour in the black.

Bozart’s (a really cool gallery) in Toledo allows me to perform for unwitting art-lover’s during the city’s artwalk. Some of them enjoy the show. Some seem indifferent. All stay to watch the entire show, which is more than I ever hope for.

Jamestown, New York’s Labyrinth Press Company let’s me play a show at their coffeehouse, opening for progressive metal band Exemption. A great show, but a small audience. Afterward I go to a dance party and regret not dressing up.

Next, I backtrack to Erie, PA and the Crooked I. A bigger music venue / bar. It is their open mic, and they have given me a special slightly longer slot. I perform for a room full of people who have no idea what to expect. And as far as I can tell, a decent amount of them are impressed. The next 8 hours are the weirdest of tour! For legal reasons I will not talk about it publicly.

The next day, I go back to Jamestown to retrieve a cable I left there. Then it’s off to Buffalo, to host “Monday Night Inventory,” an open mic that takes place at Allen Street Hardware…this place has nothing to do with Hardware. There is not even a hardware theme or anything. It’s a restaurant. I spend most of my time being confused about this fact. The open mic allows me to just talk, without having to think about a big set of music. I meet some interesting people and hear some very interesting music. The artist who particularly stands out in my mind is Forevra Evra. just click on the link and listen. You’ll know what I’m talking about.

That leg of the tour complete, I drive through Canada and up to Alpena, MI to spend some quality time with my friend and fellow artist, Jamie Grefe.

More soon.

Johnny Unicorn Summer Tour 2011 – part two

Saturday, June 25th, Seattle – in the morning, Horace Pickett and I performed on the Viaduct for an audience of hundreds (only one at a time) at the Seattle Rock and Roll Marathon. All our hopes come true as the day turns out not to be the day of “The Big One.” How ironic would it have been if the Viaduct collapsed and killed only runners? Before the show, I had trouble getting up to the performance area because I was being hassled by a police officer at the entrance ramp for not having a “pass.” Even though I explained that I had to be there to play a show, he would not let me up to the stage. I don’t respond well to authority, so I did an impressive kick in his face, sending bits of sweat and blood into the morning wind. He quickly recovered and drew his gun. I could not match such a weapon with only my hand-to-hand combat skills this early in the morning, so I ran for the edge of the bridge and jumped off, did a flip, and landed in the back of a hay truck. The cop got on his motorcycle and crashed through the cement barrier and flew through the air, but before landing on the street below, he jumped off the motorcycle and almost missed the hay truck, but managed to grab onto the metal pipe that served as the truck’s bumper. It was a good thing for him he was wearing all that leather. His bike crashed to the ground and slid into a fruit stand in a flurry of sparks, wood, and melon bits. The officer climbed up onto the back of the truck and drew his weapon once again. What had I gotten myself into? I dove off the side of the truck and rolled onto the street below. I ran into the nearest building and went into the stairwell. The cop followed me. I ran as quickly as I could up the stairs, periodically looking over the railing to see trailing me about three floors below. He stopped occasionally to shoot aimlessly up into the space between the stairs. This guy was relentless. I wouldn’t be in this mess if I only would have controlled my anger. I finally reached the top of the stairwell and the exit to the fifteenth floor roof. I pushed open the door to confront the hot stink of the tar rooftop. It was dangerous up there because he’d be able to get a clear shot, but i stood a better chance out there than going back down the stairs. I ran across the roof, and jumped to the next building. I looked back to see him swing open the door, scan the rooftops for me and shoot. He missed, fortunately, then he took off after me. We spent a few minutes jumping from roof to roof. He was pretty fast for an old guy, but it seemed as though I was keeping a good distance from him. But then I came to a gap between buildings that was too large to jump. I teetered on the edge for a few seconds, and then finally caught my balance. The officer caught up to me, and stopped to catch his breath. He told me that I was cornered, and indeed it seemed I was. We stared at each other for what seemed like hours. I could see the folds of the skin around his eyes glistening with sweat as he squinted into the sun. He came across as an old tiger, savoring the fear of his prey; not wanting to end the hunt right away. I took another look at the building across the gap. Perhaps I could make it. At least I stood a chance of surviving if I could escape the rooftop. A pigeon cooed, and his eyes very briefly moved toward the sound. Without another thought, I broke into a run, and with all my strength, hurled myself across the gap toward the other building. It seemed to take forever. I screamed as I tried to move my muscles in such a way that they the momentum would pull me through the air faster. I thought back to footage I’d seen of flying snakes. If I could become the snake…but how? Hopefully instinct would take over. Perhaps it did, I’ll never know. But I made it to the other side. I looked back to see the cop attempt the same jump. He could not quite make the jump, but he did grab onto the building ledge. I was still on my side, catching my breath from the jump. I crawled over to where the cop was struggling on the edge, and looked down into his eyes. He did not say a word, but his eyes said everything. He wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. I looked into his eyes and I could see a lifetime of pain and love. What a shame it would be for this man to die so needlessly. Perhaps he had family waiting for him. Maybe he was about to retire. I would not be able to live with myself if I just walked away. I reached out my arm and asked him to grab on. Still looking into each others eyes, we shared a moment. Without words, we communicated the truth: we were not pursuer and pursuee anymore, we were humans, and we were in this together. Still without speaking, he reached for my hand and grabbed it. But he was running out of strength, and I could feel the sweat-covered fingers slipping out of my hand. He opened his mouth to speak. His moustache fluttered in the breeze. He said “break a leg” and before I could think about it, he slipped out of my hand and fell to his death in the alley below. I said a silent prayer, and then I went to the show.

Later that night, I had a show in Yakima, WA at the Rec Room Bar and Grill. This was the first show of my solo tour. A few people showed up and we had a very good time. The other act was a guy named Navid Elliot, who is a very good acoustic performer, who plays locally in Yakima as his main job. I met some very nice people and had a very nice time. I hope to come back. From there I went to La Grande, OR and performed without a PA system at White House Coffee. it was an actual house, and it was an intimate show, and the audience was very attentive and pleasant. I think I played pretty well for not having a microphone or a keyboard. The next show I did was by myself for a crowd of rowdy drunks at a bar called the Haufbrau in Bozeman, MT. People were in and out, and I think more would have stayed if I had played more dance tunes. So I made a pact with myself to prepare more dance numbers for those sorts of occasions. I have a lot of different versions of my show, but I never thought to have a version of the show that was just dance music most of the way through. In this situation, I was the dj, and instead of giving them what they wanted, I could only give them what I had. Next time I will be more prepared. But it was still a great night, and the people I met there were awesome. In Dickinson, ND, I played a show at a local restaurant called Samson’s, which kind of had the vibe of a TGI-Friday’s. Again, I was not equipped for this sort of “background music” performance, so I did my best. Luckily, I had Mike Swenson there to play half the show, and not leave me fumbling to try to figure out what to play next. Also, he brought the PA. If it had not been for him, it would have been a boring show, indeed. We ended up joining an ancient wizard on a journey to the top of a nearby mountain, where we searched for a magical crystal and had to battle a talking statue. Mike does a very good acoustic version of “Poparazzi.” The next day, I went to Minot. I’ll talk about that in the next post.

Thanks for listening,
Please tip your barista
-Johnny U

Summer 2011 Tour – part one

Last year I bored you with an in-depth show-by-show analysis of my clumsy cruise across the country. I gave a detailed explication of every failed adventure, every success, every moment of discomfort, and every moment of terror. This year, I will skip the minutia and focus on the big picture.  I only have a small amount of time to write, anyway.

So, here it is: Part one of the Johnny Unicorn 2011 Northern tour

I. I do not have a car stereo, and I tour alone
a. I get these songs stuck in my head all the time
1.  Theme from “Paperboy”
2. Disco Inferno
3. Maybe I’m Amazed
4. Theme from “Contra” (base levels)
b. I write songs while I drive
1. I wrote the song “Dance Dance Dance Dance Dance Dance Dance Dance                Dance” but I might find, when I actually sit down to record it, that it was
really an existing song that was stuck in my head (for me, this calls into
question the entire concept of copyright)
2. I wrote another really great song…but I forgot it
c. I do vocal exercises when I can
d. I’ve been directing music videos in my head
e. sometimes I just burp for three hours
f. I use up a lot of time developing my own opinions about important topics

II. Booking shows is really difficult.
a. Just because I once confirmed a show doesn’t mean it will definitely
happen. I have to keep in touch, even though it’s hard to on the road.
b. Some places aren’t set up for my act. Sometimes I can’t do my full show.
And I’m too forgetful to remember to ask about their setup.
c. I don’t know how to get people to come to a show in a town I’ve never been
to. And sometimes I’m the only act.
d. Some people cannot imagine how anything I could do could be remotely
entertaining. Sometimes I agree, but I know some people like it, so there
must be something to what I’m doing.
e. I contacted ten times as many venues as I got shows.

III. I don’t tour because I enjoy sleeping in my car, or imposing on people in their homes, or not knowing if I will be able to make enough money to eat. I tour because:
a. I like my own music, and I want to find everyone else who might, too,
because I don’t want to be alone doing this stuff, and…
b. if I can find all the fans, then maybe I will someday be able to afford to
do the music and actually make a living that will allow me some healthcare
and some shelter and decent food.
c. If I can get enough fans, I’d like the option to perform in theatres instead
of places where the main work I’m doing is indirectly selling drinks. My
shows get limited by performing in spaces that are not mainly performance
spaces. For once I would like to have a set, lighting, dancers and enough
musicians on stage that I can walk around without an instrument. For once
I would like to be able to do a sound check before anyone enters the building
so that I can give the audience a full show that is 100% show. Though if I ever
get to that point, I would still perform in coffeeshops and some bars that I
like, just because I enjoy those kinds of shows too. I just want the option of
a different kind of show.

IV. I keep running into talk about “fame” or “stardom” whenever I talk about being a musician. There seems to be some confusion about what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a celebrity. I wish people wouldn’t talk as though they expect me to be an aspiring rock star. A rock star is a different occupation from musician. To be a mostly unknown musician and have people thinking that I’m attempting to operate within the same entertainment system that is giving us Nickelback and Lady Gaga is disconcerting. In the “music industry” someone who only sells a few thousand albums is considered a failure. And I feel like most people go with the same line of thinking that the people in the music industry does. It makes my whole project seem more unrealistic than it is. If I truly wanted to be a star, that truly would be an unattainable goal, as long as I’m doing the kind of music I like. And that makes me feel like I’m doing nothing more than couch-surfing. My goal is to be able to reach all my fans, and it is my hope to make a reasonable salary from doing medium-sized shows. I would have to be well-known to get anyone to show up to a concert, but I am not seeking celebrity. If I were, then it is almost a guarantee that I will be a failure all my life, no matter how successful I am. I am close to breaking even on my latest album. That would be the biggest musical success of my life so far. That’s more people than ever that have liked my music enough to buy the album. That’s far from going gold. It’s far from any metal.

Next time, I will actually tell some stories. I’m not done yet.

Johnny Unicorn Tour – Reflections

Here's an ostrich. Picture by Johnny Unicorn.

Hundreds of years ago, my ancestors traversed this vast continent, in search of the secret treasures and mysteries of the ancients. They traveled by foot and by chariot, along dangerous trails, defeating anyone who tried to keep them from completing their quest. Also taking their stuff and killing a lot of them. But it wasn’t long before they gave up their search for underground cities of gold and the high technology of the ancient civilizations, and turned to more immediate goals, like building shopping centers and learning accounting. Today, the drive to explore is all but gone, a fading glimmer in the distant memory of a modern society.

But that desire to explore lives on in a few of us, who wander the country in search of the dreams of our ancestors, and the lost secrets of old. I carried on this search in my Summer 2010 music tour. Only this time, the road was my trail, and a car was my chariot, and the engine my horse. A guitar was my gun, and a synthesizer my other gun. Instead of stealing the possessions of the native people I encountered, I stole their hearts. I killed them with my music and laughter.

I started my journey in the far west: Seattle, WA. The birthplace of grunge, and currently home to a music scene that is so hip and exclusive that no one has ever heard any of it. To kick off the tour, I performed at a house show in Seattle a week early. Then, I went to:

1.Eastern Washington,
3.North Dakota
Then I joined another band and went to:
9.South Dakota
14.New Mexico
Then I was back by myself in:
22.North Dakota
And finally, Seattle.

It took nearly three months, and I have gained many experience points. In the following few blog posts, I will recount to you a few of the stories of my travels, many of them made-up, that I didn’t have time to include in my blog posts for the specific performances I did. In the conclusion, I will sum up the life-lesson I learned from all of this, which will probably be something about gas mileage or accounting.

Thank you and stay tuned.