Pisa to Milan - back in the saddle

Being back in Italy is wonderful. Over the many years that we were touring we spent countless days in Pisa with our good friends and concert promoters Luca and Enrico from Locusta. We started our careers at a similar time at the beginning of the 2000s, and Locusta have now grown to become one of the biggest promoters in Italy. We were in Pisa the day that Luca took delivery of their first van - a sky blue Fiat Ducato - that would become our home away from home while on the road. So being picked up from the airport by Luca in that same van was like stepping into a time capsule. In many ways it feels like barely a day has passed, and we have fast slotted back into the familiar rhythms of touring. Although, van is a little worse for wear, and we of course have 10 years of life to catch each other up on.

Our first Italian show was in an ancient church in Pisa called Cantiere San Bernando. It was active in the 1700s and the frescos on the wall from that period still remain, and then was abandoned for a long time and left to ruin, being overtaken as a place of refuge by pigeons and junkies. Around 15 years ago a group of people started squatting there. They cleaned it up, and commenced a long battle with the municipality to turn in into a cultural space. It is now run by a group of young volunteers who host shows and events of various types. They are known for hosting shows which are 100% acoustic, so this is what we did on Monday night. It was actually a first for us, aside from short performances in record stores and the like, and it was both exhilarating and challenging at the same time. Having just come off the London show where we were fighting a big PA in a massive, echoey room, it was a relief to return to our pure essence - just our instruments and our voices, which is how all Sodastream songs begin. The acoustics of the church are designed to resonate and I think all of us in the room felt that. But it did require us to sing and perform in a way that we are not accustomed to in order to project the sound, which meant we had to dig extra deep.

Being part of the show in Pisa reminded me of something I really love about Italy, which is less common in other parts of Europe, and basically non-existent outside of it. The phenomenon is these associations of volunteers who run venues and shows. Sometimes they get some money from the local government to help put on shows, or otherwise they just make it happen, but either way it is a totally different feel to a commercial operation. And it is such a positive thing for young people to be a part of - to grow culture in their local community, and to experience the responsibility and autonomy of bringing an event to life. There was a particular moment in the church in Pisa where the group of volunteers were working together to move a rickety old piano onto the stage, carrying it together, and then propping it up with pieces of wood (see video below). It just captured the spirit of cooperation and resourcefulness which is unique to the shows put on by these groups of special people. 

Last night we were in Milan, and back into the familiar club style environment - more of our sweet spot in terms of stage, PA and venue size. It was great to meet again with fans who we haven’t seen since many years prior, some asking us to re-autograph well worn and well loved CD sleeves that we had first signed probably 15 years ago. Its nice to think that we are all ageing together, and that the connection still remains after all this time.

Cantiere San Bernando. In the top left of this picture you can see an artwork by Melbourne artist Buff Diss who works with adhesive tape to create his pieces. Amazing that it sits alongside frescos from the 18th century by an artist who also worked on the Vatican.

Cantiere San Bernando. In the top left of this picture you can see an artwork by Melbourne artist Buff Diss who works with adhesive tape to create his pieces. Amazing that it sits alongside frescos from the 18th century by an artist who also worked on the Vatican.

The group of volunteers who put on our show in Pisa, triumphant after relocating the piano for us

The group of volunteers who put on our show in Pisa, triumphant after relocating the piano for us

Maurizo who wrote about us in his his book "Vini e vinili", and other friends in Milan

Maurizo who wrote about us in his his book "Vini e vinili", and other friends in Milan

Caro Luca

Caro Luca

Behold the touring machine

The familiar gears of the touring machine are starting to click into place. We started our seven show run with an instore at Rough Trade Records. It was pretty much opposite in every way to our Friday night show - very low key, totally acoustic, and to about 15-20 people. But it was nice to return to that part of town. Our old label (Tugboat - part of Rough Trade) was over there, and we actually played that same record store probably 15 years ago. And after battling on Friday with the PA and the dynamics of a massive room, it was nice to return to the format we know best - just us and our instruments, which is exactly how each of our songs starts out. 

Inevitably, as was the case on I think every tour we have ever done, I have come down with a head cold. Mercifully, I got through our first show just as it was coming on, and will hopefully have the worst of it over and done with before the tour really ramps up.

Having some down time has allowed me to finish a book I’ve been reading - Instrumental by James Rhodes. For the most part it is a harrowing account of his journey surviving serious abuse and mental illness. But the inspiring part of it is that he is a classical pianist who is going against the grain of the traditional classical music industry to bring the music to new and younger audiences. Each chapter starts with the introduction of a new piece of music, an interesting warts and all account of the composer, and how the piece fits into the bigger picture both in James’ life and  for music history more broadly. It reminds me of one of the aspects I loved most about when I was playing in classical music orchestras - the initial unpacking of a piece, where conductor guiding and talks the musicans through it section by section, sometimes bar by bar, to reach a shared understanding and interpretation of what these notes are intended to convey. This occurs before the hard work of refining the mechanics of the performance begins.
For some reason being on the ground in Europe makes me connected to (western) music and its history in a different way. My double bass feels different to play and somehow more alive, which I attribute to the crisper air. And as we walk these streets and play in the historic halls, I can’t help but think about all of our musical predecessors, both recent and not so recent, who did the same. Its all in my mind, but what is music if not where these feelings and experiences and history come together to form a connection amongst us all?

Last night we were there for the final farewell for the Fortuna Pop record label. There were a lot of hugs and a few tears. Its a massive tribute to Sean and all the bands and fans of the label what an amazing community of people has formed around this music. I’ve always had great admiration for all the labels and label managers we have worked with, and it it was great to see such a genuine outpouring of appreciation for the great work Sean has put in over the last 20 years. Sean wisely chose to end proceedings with the label's fresh blood - Martha, Joanna Gruesome, The Spook School and Chorusgirl - to leave every one looking forward towards the future indie music in this scene he has done so much to faster. Fortuna Pop is dead. Long live Fortuna Pop!

Sean Price - the man behind Fortuna Pop

Sean Price - the man behind Fortuna Pop

Kings Cross Station against an spring evening sky

Kings Cross Station against an spring evening sky

Big night

Well after three days of catch-ups with old friends and happy wanderings around this new and refreshed London (a little different from the grit and grime of 15 years ago) we finally headed down to the Islington Assembly Hall for our first show of the tour.

We met the Butterflies of Love outside and have to say we were all mightily impressed by the venue. A beautiful and imposing theatre to say the least and not the place we’re used to performing in. The in-house team were fantastic and helped us settle in. Dressing rooms were allocated. And despite Jeff from the Butterflies insisting that their dressing room was much better because they had a bathroom attached, ours had more homely furnishings and mood lighting so I called it a draw.

Sound check proved a little challenging, as the lads behind the desk couldn’t actually turn on the PA for a good couple of hours… just a lot of furrowed brows and purposeful pacing around. We left them to it while The Butterflies ran through a few numbers on the stage and eventually the PA roared back to life. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief and we raced through sound checks before the doors opened.

With just one Melbourne show under our belt before taking on London I have to say I was feeling pretty nervous. Pete and I opted for a relaxed Mediterranean dinner across the road and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc helped quieten the nerves.

Lots of friends from the old days began arriving and there was a magical feeling in the room as we watched Darren Hayman do his thing. Great tunes and lovely to hear them live after such a long break. Next up was Flowers – part of Fortuna Pop’s next generation – and their cinematic sound filled the room. I hadn’t heard much of their stuff before but their beautiful vocals and epic guitar sound was something special.

Then it was our turn. I did my final warm-ups in the kitchen under the stage. And with all the steel cabinets and cooktops it was kind of like being in a reverb chamber – perfect for my weird vocal exercises.

It was strange walking out onto our first London stage since 2007 but it wasn’t long before we felt right at home. It always takes me a song or two to find my feet but once the nerves settle I can lose myself in the moment and just enjoy being wrapped up in the songs for an hour. It is a real blessing having the opportunity to play music both at home and abroad, and the older I get the more I appreciate what a gift it is.

The set flew by and it wasn’t long before we were playing our final song. I looked out to Sean, the man who put this whole crazy thing together and who has been the epicentre of this eclectic community of music fanatics for the last 20 years. It was then that the emotion of the moment really hit me. He’s off to Japan in a few months and after this weekend Fortuna Pop will close up shop and everyone will disperse. But whatever happens next, this ‘little label that could’ will hold a special place in the hearts of people from all over – from London, New Haven and Kentucky to Melbourne, Innsbruck and New York City. 

As much as I love performing, I have to say I also love that moment right after a show when you can relax and in an ideal scenario (like it was the other night) get to watch another band do their thing. And what a treat The Butterflies of Love were. Wild, unruly and thoroughly engaging, they kicked their way through a set of amazing songs. With both Dan and Jeff in fine voice (why we all used to smoke so much as singers I’ll never know) the songs really came alive… and Jeff’s engaging monologues are a sure sign that a career in politics awaits.  

After the final chords rang out it was time to relax and continue the catch-ups with friends. Celebrations continued on into the wee hours and finally came to a close in the salubrious surrounds of the Walthamstow Travelodge Hotel bar. Needless to say heads were a little heavy yesterday morning but there wasn’t too much time to feel sorry for ourselves as the next Fortuna Pop show was kicking off in the afternoon down at Tufnell Green.

The calm before

It was great to be back at Bush Hall last night. Nice memories flooded back of when we played there in 2003. We really enjoyed the set by Pete Astor - reminiscent of Velvet Underground at times, and a great show.

There is an impending sense of excitement and nerves (in a good way) as the tour is about to kick into gear. These last few days have been an unusual and rare treat - to have some days off, and to be staying in a hotel. It only occurred to us last night when we ducked off early from the Bush Hall show so as to ensure that we are well rested for the big show today, that in years gone by we didn’t usually have that option. We were always crashing on people’s floors, so we would often be moving at someone else’s pace. So there is some benefit in getting older and being able to afford to move ease into things.

I started my day today with a delightful FaceTime call with my daughter Esther and partner Michelle who are back home in Melbourne. The time difference is working in our favour and we seem to be able to manage a call just as I wake and they prepare for bedtime. Esther turns 2.5 in a couple of days, and having FaceTime is really helping her understand that I’m away. Pete from the Butterflies of Love flew in from the USA yesterday, and likewise at the Bush Hall gig last night he was on FaceTime with his little boy, passing the phone around so he could say hi to all the other guys in the band. I guess all of our priorities have changed since we last on the road together 14 years ago, and its nice that technology has kept up and is helping us feel connected to the ones that we love. I certainly don’t miss the days of dealing with phone cards and Internet cafes - it feels like a miracle we ever got anything achieved or ourselves from A to B.

Rehearsing in the hotel room these past few days has provided some fortuitous and timely preparation for our next two shows after tonight, which will be 100% acoustic with no PA or amplifiers - Sunday an in a tiny West London record store, and Monday in an ancient church in Pisa. Lately we have been rehearsing plugged in to get ready for bigger stages. Its all part of the excitement and challenge of being on tour, with such wild extremes to deal with. 

Time now to get the mind ready for what will hopefully be a great show. The venue looks amazing, and there are lots of old friends coming along. Can’t wait!

We are becoming locals in "The Stow"

We are becoming locals in "The Stow"

Thankful we packed the hats and scarves. Just a bit chilly compared to Melbourne!

Thankful we packed the hats and scarves. Just a bit chilly compared to Melbourne!

Pete Astor ripping it up at the amazing Bush Hall

Pete Astor ripping it up at the amazing Bush Hall

Can we take these guys home with us. Loving our reuinion with dear friends The Butterflies of Love.

Can we take these guys home with us. Loving our reuinion with dear friends The Butterflies of Love.

Butterflies, breakfasts and tin hats

Well it’s been a fun and entertaining start to our London adventure. We’re into day two now and feeling pretty relaxed about things.

I had an illuminating chat with my Uber driver on our way to the hotel from the airport. Despite his relative youth (27) he was able to set me straight on a wide range of subjects – apparently Brexit is an amazing opportunity for everyone in the UK; it’s impossible to win an argument with a woman; and if you invest in real estate you’re guaranteed a 200% return on your investment. Who knew I was wrong on so many fronts? Needless to say the hour-long drive didn’t exactly fly by, but I did enjoy taking in the sights of London out the window. 

As Pete mentioned, we’re staying in Walthamstow, and it seems like the place to be right now. Reminds me a little of Preston or Reservoir back home in Melbourne: a nice mix of local markets, mum-and-pop shops and little cafes and bakeries with good coffee….  just with a few extra double decker buses cruising around. And although we’ve barely left the area we’ve managed to catch up with a bunch of old friends we haven’t seen in such a long time.

The Butterflies of Love barrelled into town yesterday bringing with them their own special brand of chaos. They arrived in London on three separate flights as they’re spread between Boston, New Jersey and Connecticut now. Since then, we’ve been sharing our various life stories from the last ten years. Kids, new music projects and London’s changing culinary identity have dominated the conversations so far. There’s been a bit of debate about how London’s new breakfasts compare with the classic fry-ups. My spinach and ricotta quiche with rocket at this morning’s gathering at Today Bread was ok but the toasties (a favourite of the locals) got a lukewarm response from our American friends. We’ll see how things play out.

After an afternoon rehearsal in the hotel room yesterday, we rode the overground train out to Hackney for a vegan dinner with a friend at The Black Cat (an old anarchist club that’s been given a new-London makeover) and then the Twenty Years of Trouble opening party at The Moth.

The Moth stands for ‘Memorable Order of the Tin Hats’, a club for military veterans that’s been around since 1927. The place now has a second life as a popular indie venue and its sparkling gold ceiling certainly helps create a festive vibe.

Inside we caught up with Sean Price, the man of the hour and Fortuna Pop kingpin who’s orchestrated this whole thing and who we have to thank for bringing everyone together this week. Over the last 20 years he’s released some 200 records on Fortuna Pop and put on countless shows. It’s an amazing achievement and I guess he does deserve a bit of a break after such a big effort. Music was played; drinks were drunk, and stories were shared – all round a great start to proceedings and we’re looking forward to the first of the full shows tonight at Bush Hall.

London calling

So we have landed in one piece, gear intact, and feeling strangely refreshed. We were lucky with the flights, and after years of enduring sleep deprivation on the home front courtesy of young children, a long haul flight is suddenly a walk in the park.

London greeted us with a familiar arctic blast of cold air. We are staying in an area called Walthamstow, and all feels remarkably clean and gentrified compared to neighbourhoods we used to knock about in. Or more likely London has just moved on with the rest of the world and we weren’t here to witness it. All I know is that I had a very Melbourne style breakfast of avocado and eggs on toast, and a real proper flat white - a far cry from the greasy spoon style two eggs on toast and a molten hot instant coffee which we became accustomed to in years gone by! I’ll be disappointed, to be honest, if we don’t manage to squeeze in a greasy spoon style breakfast… just for old time’s sake.

We met up with our wonderful UK publicist Lucy this morning - the first of many reunions to look forward to over the coming days. Its a strange world these days where we can collaborate on something as complex as an album release from across the world, and not have actually spoken since we last met over 10 years ago. Its one of the things I’m looking forward to most about this tour - to actually meet up in the flesh with all these folks that we know so well.

Looking forward to the first of the Fortuna Pop! shows tonight, and to the Butterflies of Love arriving at some point today. Let the games begin!

Great to see Lucy from But I Like You PR

Great to see Lucy from But I Like You PR