Birchville Cat Motel Tour Diary, Pt. 1
Campbell Kneale's Birchville Cat Motel is one of the many reasons New Zealand's music scene is worshipped around the globe. The Motel draws from noise, drone and rock, settling somewhere between Alastair Galbraith and MotŲrhead (see photo). Kneale runs his own Celebrate Psi Phenomenon label, which always feature exquisitely hand-crafted album art, and has released records on Corpus Hermeticum, Ecstatic Peace! and Drunken Fish, among others. For more information on Kneale and Celebrate Psi Phenomenon, check out the label's web site at http://www.cpsip.co.nz/. Kneale was kind enough to record his thoughts for Dusted Magazine while traveling on tour across Europe.
Birchville Cat Motel European Tour 2003
JANUARY 1 & 2
I fucking hate flying.
New Years day 2003 I woke up with more than a lump in my stomach, I was damn near beside myself with anxiety, desperately wandering around the house trying to amuse my hands with meaningless tasks so that my brain would not be permitted to think about the veritable behemoth of flights looming a few hours away. I'm rambling, I'm rambling...
You have to realise that New Zealand is a pretty small place where most people have their own cars. I can barely catch a train into town without raising a sweat.
What transpired that day was a 40-hour long haul from Nelson (New Zealand) to Auckland, to Los Angeles, to Frankfurt, to Brussels where I was to be met by Johan from the Kraak3 label for the beginning of Birchville Cat Motel's first tour of Europe. I stopped grabbing the arm-rest with each slight bump of turbulence about two hours out of Auckland but still, not even two sleeping pills could send me into blissful unconsciousness. I arrived in L.A three hours before I had left home due to the time difference and my head began to do cartwheels. After eight hours of stop-over/dead time, and a couple more on the second leg of my trip, my second attempt to sedate myself succeeded and I was overjoyed to come round over the English Channel.
A quick change-over in Frankfurt and a pleasantly uneventful trip over the brick-speckled villages of Belgium and I was shaking hands and drinking a celebratory beer with Johan in the bar at Brussells airport. Thankfully, my flight case of equipment had followed me all the way, like a good pet.
My brain felt like a warm, fish milkshake as we traveled the half-hour or so to Gent in the car Johan had borrowed to collect me. I grappled with a new accent and tried not to say 'golly' or 'gee-whiz' too much at the strangeness of the urban scenes passing by. The rest of the day gradually blurred as my body clock succumbed to jet lag. We walked around, ate, drank, and I crashed about 10pm.
And woke about 4am. Awwww... crap! I got up and watched MTV until the warm fish milkshake grew into a burning hot fish milkshake and I was forced to fossick around to find the coffee.
After tracking down Johan (who had mysteriously lost his way home and asked a couple of nice looking champagne bottles for directions) I hit the town with Jurgen (Kohn) and his sister, Bianca. Gent was bustling with shoppers, wrestling through its beautifully cobbled streets, for the post-Christmas sales. A frigid, drizzly, haze hung over the town and stung my face... a lot like Dunedin, really. A truly gorgeous place, attractively blackened by time.
Johan was busy having his sins punished on Jurgen's couch and needed to be rescued so that we could catch the train up to Antwerp for the first show. We arrived at Stereophonic Records in the early evening: a small indie record store with a really cool vibe, perhaps able to cater to a capacity crowd of 20. Never mind setting up, we were off to eat. My swimming head had subsided and i was in the mood for the finest Belgium had to offer...we met up with Hendrick, a wonderful chap who had stopped by at my house on his recent NZ visit, and ended up eating witloof in fantastic little restaurant completely decked out in iconic statues and religious paraphernalia. Witloof rocks! So does Belgian beer (which I was learning was not merely a drink, more like a national sport!).
Turned up at the show a bit late, hurriedly set up on the counter, and after a quick test, I attempted to whip-it-out on the unsuspecting Belgians. With moderate success. A bit of faulty gear and on-the-fly repair work. E verybody seemed happy enough but it was hardly the best thing I'd ever done...I still sold a shitload of records though, including the new 7"s that were dropped off in person by Laurent and Sara who run the magnificent Veglia label. Met a whole bunch of really top-class folks too. Not surprisingly, we all ended up at the nearest pub where I was given the Duvel test. A heavy brew indeed. I'm not sure if I passed or not. I have no recollection of how I got to Laurents apartment in Brussells.
Thankfully there was no rush to do anything. I was able to gather a few thoughts and take things a little easier after what seemed like a few very heavy days. Laurent and Sara turned out to be amongst the greatest people you could ever hope to stay with on tour...I felt very taken care of which was exactly what I needed. Pancakes and fresh orange juice for breakfast and in spite of us all trying to decipher each others accents by means of translating into either Belgian or English, we got on like old friends. Fascinating people.
We spent the afternoon devouring the new Sunn O))) album and recording some fine hum and buzz in the apartment. Laurent is a first class player who seems to have half-assembled gadgets for every occasion. He also has a spare cardboard box collection that rivals my own. Hopefully these recordings will see the light one day.
Weird trivia: The basement of Laurentís apartment was apparently the location of a Sonic Youth show on their first trip to Europe sometime in the early '80s. Believe it, or not? Well...we didn't believe it...until someone else verified the story. Cool, huh?
Uh yeah, well anyway...we packed up our mess and loaded up the car to head off to 33 Chausee de Mons where I was to play that night. Turned out to be a wonderful apartment/loft space where we were treated to a fantastic, home-made, vegetarian meal with all the trimmings. As the meal progressed the loft started filling up with people.
Again, a hurried set-up and quick sound check through the P.A (which was Laurentís mini stereo speakers) and a few minutes later I attempted to sock it to the Belgians again. Um...again with only moderate success...I was beginning to discover a possible link between quick setups and mediocre performances and vowed not to do it again. The show was supremely quiet, a means of performing that I have found in the past to be every bit as powerful as playing at full volume. I love the way that the audience is forced to submit to the volume level in the same way that really loud music obliterates all conversation in the room. But tonight, it seemed that it lacked the fearsome tension that had characterised the other quiet shows I had done. Instead of the devastating blast of near silence I had envisaged, it was merely 'quiet.' It wasn't complete shit...but I shant pretend it was shit-hot either. I sold a record or two, and consoled myself with the best french-fries ever to touch my lips (with curry ketchup) bought from a roadside caravan on the way home.
I was also immensely cheered when my host presented me with a hideous, turquoise, Adidas sweatshirt screen-printed with orange Birchville Cat Motel artwork! Apparently they thought that New Zealand free-noise dudes were all snappy dressers like Dean Roberts and wanted to see if I would wear it to be polite. I wasn't THAT polite. You crazy Belgians.
To be honest I went home to Laurentís feeling like a bit of a charlatan.
It had dipped below freezing and I knew that was a good omen. I love the cold. I felt a fresh, new vibe and started humming "We Are The Road Crew" as it began to snow ever so lightly outside. I knew that tonight I was gonna kick some muthaphukin' freeeenoise ass! Uh-HUH.
After another lovely, lazy day of listening to records and watching the amazing, near-unknown, Belgian band Longing For Stork on video (hooo-WEEE!), we hit the motorway bound for the Kunstcentrum Belgie in Hasselt to co-headline with Windsor For The Derby from the USA.
What a great place. Big venue, big PA, lights, camera, action! Lovely people who really treated me well and made me forget how thoroughly dull my performing halo had been so far. They pulled out the stops, laid on the hospitality (even Spinal Tap styled triangle sandwiches!). I set up leisurely, and shook the room up with a great soundcheck. For once I began to feel gigantic, and hugely relieved.
After a fascinating laptop vs. acoustic instruments blip-hop set from Ovil Bianca and Kim Briers, and a thunderous wall of sleep from Laurentís three-piece Toss, I climbed the stage in front of a pretty decent sized audience. Swaying and chanting like a Hare Krishna Stevie Wonder, and additional waves of drummed-up voodoo pulse sent my blood pounding and Birchvilles barrage of tone float into some new stratospheric directions... it felt like I had left the ground. I don't know what anyone else thought... but I loved it. I sweated, and yelled, and fuckedshitup (in that well-behaved kinda way that I do) for all I was worth and felt totally cleansed for doing so.
Its always hard to be objective after you play. Maybe I was altered by the fury of performing, but I thought Windsor For The Derby were uninspiring dullards. A very average Dunedin band. Looked like they hadn't had a good time since the early 1990s. I bought a brown Aesthetics T-Shirt from Windsorís 'label guy' for Stefan Neville (who plays drums for The Aesthetics), thanked everybody rapturously, said goodbye to a few new friends, and headed back to Brussells grateful that I never chose 'post-rock' as a career.
Let loose with a street map in Brussells, nodding appreciatively at shopkeepers, I underestimated how scary it is to be alone in a city when you don't speak the language. You feel completely detached from the rest of the world.
Thanks to Laurent, I upgraded to a sleeping cabin on the night-train bound for Berlin that evening. Yay! I could sleep all the way across Germany and awake refreshed ready to kick mo' ass. Oh dear...how wrong was I?
Leaving at midnight, squashed into a tiny cabin with 5 others. A drunken Yugoslav who stunk of homemade alcohol, and a family who talked in a distinctive half quacking/half singing dialect at full volume, then snored seemingly louder than the train itself all night. No Sleep ĎTil Hammersmith baby! Especially seeing as one guy's cellphone went off at 6am and the next round of quacking/singing began. Up and dressed and wandering around (again at full volume) they proceeded to eat a healthy breakfast of oranges. The bitter tang of orange turned my stomach brown. By night, beneath the din of the family, Germany felt like the loneliest and bleakest of places as the snow gradually deepened outside the further north we travelled. Trapped in a bumping cattle car with a bunch of people I did not want to be with. I felt like living crap when I finally piled off the train in -9 degrees at Berlin Ostbahnof.
One subway stop, and a desperately needed Burger King coffee later, I was met by Tim Tetzner who ran the Ausland club in Eastern Berlin. An affable chap, we chatted enthusiastically as I dragged 'The Harley Davidson' as my case had become affectionately known (thanks to the deep purring sound the wheels made when dragged over the cobbled streets in Belgium) back to his apartment. Tim was dead busy so I gathered another map and went exploring the grand avenues of Berlin. Fabulously grand, classical styled architecture on that massive scale the Germans were so fond of. As much as I am no great fan of the 'sightseeing/tourist' caper, this was a fascinating few hours that left me OOoo-ing and AAaa-ing with embarrassing frequency. I pinched myself often, not quite being able to comprehend that I was in Berlin, on tour, and surviving quite well thank you. After what must have been 10 hours of wandering I found my way back to Timís apartment, read a book, and crashed.
Another day of wandering in -15 degrees. Berlin has great shops... and fantastic bakeries! I had the most unbelievable strudel for breakfast! I also went to the best musical equipment shop I've ever even dreamed of, but couldn't buy a thing due to the resultant baggage-hell that would have ensued when I tried to get my newly acquired doo-dad on an aeroplane. Bugger.
In the early evening Tim and I headed up to Ausland: a superb little concrete bomb-shelter situated in the basement of some apartment complex in the 'alternative' part of town. Cool huh? We arranged chairs, drank German beer, and I set up my equipment in my newly discovered 'leisurely' fashion. Burritos were being cooked up but due to my horrendously spectacular bean-allergy (for a great bean story, check out my Japan tour diary!) I dipped out for falafel.
The show started pretty soon after my return with Boris -- who had some real flash gadgets (with real lights and neat little buttons) augmenting his laptop. A shapeless set of fizzing electronics that flitted alluringly like a fishing-fly, but remained intangible and illusive. I have to confess that the laptop thing really does nothing for me (with rare exceptions namely Esosteel, Pimmon, and Simon Wickham Smith) but it was pretty cool I suppose.
I played OK. The space dictated a different vibe and the fury of Hasselt was well and truly dealt to by two days of walking the streets of Berlin. The seated and attentive audience gave off a meditative feel and I guess I kinda went along with that angle. Pensive stillness, calm, an attempt to create something really tender and beautiful (yet still a little terrifying). Some folk were very glowing in their praise of the show and seemed genuinely quite moved. I was a little surprised at how successfully I had managed to communicate the vibe i had picked up...I had no idea how I had managed to get it so 'right' on this occasion. It seemed that EVERYONE had supped at length from a cup of deep mysticism during the show and commented strongly to that effect. Boris remarked with a big smile "Your equipment is like a church...and you play like a monk!" I was real happy.
I went home very content and chatted with Tim for many hours about current events, politics, Germany, and rock'n'roll. He's a really great guy.
The radio predicted -19 degrees for Berlin in the morning so I was dead keen to get my freezing ass out of there as quickly as I could. By mid morning I found myself hurtling past the West Berlin allotments on the edge of the city and into the frozen farmlands of Northern Germany, training it to Hamburg and then on to Bremen for the next show. From the train, Germany was gorgeous in the stinging sunlight and if it wasn't for the metre-deep sea of snow that hung heavily on the ground you could be forgiven for thinking it a rather hot day.
I dozed on and off and shunted into Bremen about 3pm. I waited around and left messages on my contacts phone to come and pick me up anytime. About an hour later I was met by Michael Hohendorf of the Knieschesclub. I was pretty glad to see him as I was getting sick of the loneliness of the 'public transport thing' and the handle had come off the Harley which meant that getting it around was becoming a pain in the ass.
We trundled back to his cosy apartment and hopped off down the road to meet Nicolas Felix Kauffmann, a chap I was really looking forward to hooking up with. I had had much contact with Nicolas over the last couple of years through his solo/duo project, Ekko and it was his crazy idea that got me over to Europe in the first place. It was a thrill to finally meet. Together, the three of us went for dinner to a friend of Michaels and then it was off to set up at The Zakk.
The Zakk is a great place to play. It's apparently illegal for the leasees to have performances or parties there so all there shows are publicised by word of mouth and secret e-mails. This didn't seem to get in the way of a grand time: a dimly lit and generously appointed bar, nice P.A, and room for a capacity crowd of about 40 (if you really packed 'em in!).
Nicolas kicked off the action (under the Brother Jinx moniker) with a smouldering and heavily processed, bowed guitar set that prompted the mohowked punk rockers I was sitting beside to exclaim with excitement "Wow, I never heard anything that sounded like that before, this is very new". It WAS pretty fucking great actually, and it was especially cool to see a bunch of guys who looked like they were probably expecting a Discharge set dig it too.
I felt like a part of the furniture at the Zakk, such was the relaxed atmosphere of the place. I promptly hopped into the hot seat and whipped out what must have been the 'set of the tour.' The noise flowed seemingly effortlessly and was received really enthusiastically. Hoorah.
We spent the night drinking Becks, and other neat little concoctions donated by the bar, chatting with Stefan from Drone Records, and a couple of cool Australian chicks (who spoke fluent English, which was a real luxury). After a stinging cold walk home with Michael, Nicolas, and The Harley, we supped tea and hit the mattress...it seemed like an absolute AGE since I left Berlin.
And OH MY GOD it was hard to get up the next morning at 7am to catch the train to Aarhus! For the first time I felt the pangs of genuine fatigue. I felt like absolute crap and slipped in and out of deep unconsciousness after we changed lines at Hamburg. Denmark was wearing a spectacular, frozen-white fairy outfit covering its entirety, from head to toe. In the blur my brain was in it was hard to figure out if this Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe-like scene was real or just a particularly vivid part of a nice dream.
Aarhus is in the north of Denmark, about 5 hours from Bremen. A cool-looking place with that long skinny architecture you think of as being uniquely Scandinavian. Cobbled streets and dirty snow piled up into large mounds on either side of the winding lanes. I was real excited to be there. We followed our contact through a twisty maze of side streets to The Jutland Art Academy, the Harleys disintegrating handle giving me grief all the way. We were met by a beautiful, clean-lined, white room which would serve as the venue for the evening. COOL! Although both Nicolas and I were still pretty tired, we gasbagged excitedly with the two guys who had set the show up over some fine James Brown records.
People started filling up the Academy about 9 pm and pretty soon it was a rowdy little room. The high level of chatter provided an opportunity for Brother Jinx to hit a slightly harder-edged note and a real blasting was on the menu for the punters. No one took the slightest bit of notice. I tag-teamed into the end of his set and was met with even less interest. Hmmm... clearly I was not going to be able to capture anyoneís attention by going for the throat volume-wise. Instead, I resolved to aim for the soft parts of the foot and gradually pulled the volume down (I'll FORCE you to submit to MY volume level!). No luck. No one gave a toss. Frustrated at having taken a five hour train ride to be completely ignored, spite got the better of me and I pulled the volume RIGHT down in an uncharacteristic act of pure vindictiveness. I felt really bad for the small handful of folk who were generally interested in what I was doing, but their night was being ruined by a bar full of art-louts, and scenesters who were not in the slightest bit interested in our music. Nobody even clapped. They only noticed I had played at all when the hip-hop started up again.
A completely shit gig.
Me and Nicolas packed up our gear and got the fuck outta there and spent the remainder of the evening drinking coffee and wandering the lanes of Aarhus giggling and asking ourselves perplexing brain-busters like "Who would pay the considerable door charge to see an international act that you didn't give a toss about?" Neither of us could come up with an answer to that one. I mean, would you?
Regardless, our spirits were high and we both felt like we played good shows in spite of the disinterest of the audience. We had a number of good laughs about 'bloody Aarhus' over the next few days. We eventually returned to the club (which was now a fully swinging hip-hop joint?! Man, were we wrong about this place!) and managed to get a bed (with some difficulty) out the back of the club in the office. The organiser begrudgingly paid us and spoke to Nicolas in a resigned tone for a long time in Danish. Tsk. It had been another huge day, and even the incessant booming, 'neighbours-from-hell' noise from the next room wasn't going to keep us awake.
Needless to say, we had had our fill of Aarhus and we hotfooted it to the train station pretty early in the morning so that we could back to the comfort of Nicolas' hometown, Copenhagen, as early as possible. Nicolas is a great guy and we became good friends on those lengthy train trips. We arrived at Nicolas' house, where he lives with his mum, just after midday. We unpacked, told our Aarhus story, and then I embarked on a shower that bordered on the realms of the ecstatic. I have never been so deeply joyful about hot water pouring of my completely naked self. It was just so damn GOOD, to be clean again! Amen brother!
And FOOD! Awwww... the most magnificent lunch of meats and cheeses and breads and culinary delights! Absolutely divine after many many days of quick-as-you-can-get meals.
In the early evening we drove down to a performance space called The Church. And a church it was! A beautiful old, converted church, complete with high ceiling, ornate lights and metalwork, and a pipe organ. A big place too. Already setting up were a number of people I had been communicating with before the tour and I was really thrilled to feel like I was amongst friends again.
The Church is apparently the only thing happening in Copenhagen on the 'non-popular music' front and it began to seem like it too as a really good crowd began filling up the sizeable venue. As SINUS17 clocked in with some truly fine electrohaze via kiddies toys and effects mountains, it became very clear that Aarhus was more than just 3 hours train ride away... it was a different planet compared to this warm, receptive, and enthusiastic audience. Nicolas' er... 'rock' band FLOWER revved its jets with a shredding two-bass grind, over which Mr Jinx flogged all hell out of the Jazzmaster... really quite something! Imagine a parallel universe Sunn O))) who were much more interested in Rudolph Grey than Cliff Burton.
I could hardly slouch after that. I played a blinder in spite of some of my more delicate contact mics showing signs of immanent disintegration. Everybody I talked to afterwards seemed really taken with the performance too. YAY. I also managed to sell an absolute shitload of records.
A very happy cabload of bandsters made their way home to Nicolas' for cups of tea. Much chatter and late to bed as per usual.
Part 2 of this feature is available here.
By Campbell Kneale