Brandon Phillips, bandleader, singer and guitarist, is at the wheel. His brothers, Adam the drummer and Zach the bass player, along with guitarist Mike Alexander, are sleeping on the van's three benches. Brandon isn't interested in driving slowly. Without the aid of radio or headphones and with dome light on, Brandon deathgrips the steering wheel with his right hand. On his arm is a tattoo of a blue whale crashing through ocean waves.
"It'll be brutal," Brandon had said a few hours earlier as he told me about this trip. It would be a punishing, 30-plus-hour drive to Southern California, where the band was to play two stops on the Vans Warped Tour before turning around and coming home. I was invited to fill in for their usual roadie, Wade Williamson, a local musician and bouncer who had badly cut his hand on a broken bottle one rough night at the bar. Unlike me, Williamson knows how to handle musical equipment how to plug cables into the right boxes, replace broken guitar strings in a heartbeat, put the right amp heads in the right cases. The Architects had called just about everybody who could conceivably fill in for him.
And then they called me, a music journalist who had never really been on the road before.
I had written just one article on the Architects, back when their second album, Revenge, came out ("Blood Brothers," February 23). I guess they liked the story. Maybe they just thought I was unlikely to annoy them, and that was enough. Or maybe it was a sick impulse to conscript the local reporter, as in Unforgiven, when Sheriff Little Bill Dagget hijacks English Bob's vanity biographer to write about him instead. Most likely, it was just a case of "he'll do."
We come to the entrance of the Kansas Turnpike. Brandon takes the ticket from the automated dispenser. Only Emporia. Still raining.
As for me, I wasn't so sure I would do especially after the storms had cleared, the sun had risen high, and we were still only in Oklahoma City. What kind of circus wagon had I boarded? Brandon, king of the marathon driving stints, had pulled over at a McDonald's and woken Zach, who had been sound asleep since Kansas City, despite the storm. They went inside the restaurant, leaving the van running. Mike and Adam stayed asleep. I waited for Brandon and Zach to come back. After five minutes, I turned off the van and went inside the McDonald's. Brandon was sitting at a table, chewing an egg biscuit, looking as if he'd walked the entire way.
Driving to California without stopping is hard enough. Doing it in a gas-guzzling van full of guys all of us guaranteed to start smelling funky towing a two-axle trailer, paying $50 to $60 per incomplete fill-up just to play two free shows? On a tour notorious for the way it allows bands this size to be completely eclipsed by the bigger acts and the sheer number of musicians at each stop? Might insane be the right word? The Architects stood to gain nothing and perhaps even lose a little money, health, patience, you name it.
Why even go?
Because rock and roll is a business of risk, and having been at it for so long, the Architects are more than qualified to roll the dice.
In New Mexico, things start to improve. Sure, we're all a bit road-weary, but it's in central New Mexico that the great West opens up, mountains rise from the plains, rain and sun and rolling ground all become so much more beautiful than in the vast, monochromatic Midwest.
My companions aren't impressed. They traveled this road a forgotten number of times in their previous incarnation, the Gadjits, and half a dozen times as the three-ish-year-old Architects.
The biggest New Mexico highlight for the Architects is a semi with brazen graffiti sprayed on its trailer in red paint: the horrendous slogan "fuck all niggers" surrounded by incorrectly drawn swastikas, along with the extra toss-off "and fuck you too." Parked at a truck stop outside Albuquerque, we gaze in uneasy wonder at the trailer as Brandon waits for his Palm Pilot to latch onto an Internet connection.
Brandon is the oldest of the Phillipses, and he's the backbone of the band's business side. Together with label founder John Hulston, he runs local project Anodyne Records. It's about as indie as labels come. But with distribution; publicity through the megahouse Mitch Schneider Organization; a hands-off, gurulike manager; and contacts from 10 years in the industry, the band members are able to do most of the work themselves rather than rely on high-dollar managers and publicists, who are always eager to spend a band's money.
Still, wouldn't Brandon be better off letting someone else do the legwork, allowing him to focus on being a musician and writing songs?
"I can't have an artistic life if I don't have a business life," he counters.
Here's the strategy behind this fast Warped trip: The tour organizers let Brandon pick any three dates, so he chose the two in SoCal (Ventura and Dodger Stadium) plus one in Chicago, which they had to cancel in order to open for Rancid on July 30 at Liberty Hall in Lawrence.
"We didn't pick easy dates," he confesses. "But I can always catch up on Minneapolis later. I'd like my hometown and Los Angeles to hear us."
Los Angeles is the place to catch up with the industry. As the Gadjits even though their relationship with Epitaph/Hellcat didn't last these guys were well-known in the circuits they traveled (ska, punk, alternative). Since changing the band's name, they've had to reintroduce themselves everywhere they go, Adam explains. "You gotta show up in person. You gotta drive halfway across the world, do it in person."
There's a reason that so many bands would give their testicles to play on the Warped Tour.
First of all, the audience is guaranteed to be there. "Warped Tour makes a lot of money for Warped Tour," the guys keep reminding themselves. For the demographic it attracts mostly underage hard music fans it's the hottest ticket of the summer. If you can get booked on a long Warped Tour run, your band stands to come into contact with a wide expanse of your target audience. In fact, so many bands would kill to be on the tour that many will play it for free.
Also, every year, the tour has a "barbecue band" the group that's allowed to tag along only because it has promised to host the cookouts at the end of each day.
Businesswise, the main thing Warped Tour bands have to worry about is selling enough merchandise to pay for the gas required to get to each stop, plus buy enough food to stay alive. (Most groups get one free meal a day.) Showers are few and far between (except if you're a headliner), thus limiting hookups to only the most hygienically liberal of groupies.
For most bands, time slots aren't announced until the morning of each stop. This system serves as a constant reminder to bands: You are but a tiny cog in our holy machinery.
We cruise through Native America, listening to Doggystyle and the Wu-Tang Clan on an iPod plugged into a tape adapter. In Arizona, Adam takes the wheel because Zach has an outstanding traffic-accident warrant in that state. (To hear Zach tell it, only his pride and someone else's fender sustained damage.) "You wanna not drive 90 fuckin' miles an hour? I'd rather not go to jail," Zach complains as Adam tears through the outskirts of Phoenix. MIA's Piracy Funds Terrorism remix album pumps out of the van's front speakers, and we agree that the Sri Lankan pop star would make a terrific lay.
In western Arizona, the ridiculously long day comes to a close, and as the second night begins, we realize that we won't reach Los Angeles until the next morning. We stop at a Wendy's for a sit-down meal. A double with cheese burbling in my stomach, I resign myself to another night passing at 75 miles an hour.
At 4:30 Tuesday morning, the freeway into Los Angeles swarms with the night traffic of the sleepless city. Heading north on U.S. Highway 101 out of the city, an ultramodern McDonald's provides our morning sanctuary. I take the opportunity to change clothes and hastily scrub myself with some baby wipes I bought in Arizona. As I'm brushing my teeth at the sink, a man emerges from a stall and looks at me suspiciously as he walks to the door without washing his hands as if doing so next to me would put him at risk. I think it's damned hypocritical of him considering the alien-birth sounds he was making over the toilet moments before.
Minimally refreshed, we get back on the highway and head north for the venue, which is in Ventura exactly where, we're not sure. We have to check in at 8, and it's already after 7. We take a wrong turn and drive behind a long stretch of dilapidated (and no doubt expensive) beach houses and the parked RVs of nomadic surfers. We find the right exit and pull into the festival parking lot. This Warped Tour stop is behind a convention center where a dog show is being held. Compared with many of the tour's venues, this Ventura spot is downright quaint.
An RV pulls up beside us, out of which several denim-clad wookies emerge. The Architects recognize them as members of Valient Thorr, a band Zach knows from bartending at the Brick when Thorr has come through Kansas City. The hirsute rockers look even blearier than we are, and when a security guard drives up in a golf cart to order their vehicle out of the handicapped parking spot, one of the staggering, shaggy marauders exclaims, "I don't ... even know ... where I am!"
We park, get wristbands and walk through the festival grounds. Tents and booths are rising as four-wheelers zip about. "This is a circus," Adam says.
And the Architects are barely a sideshow. The Hot Topic stage, where they'll play on both days, is in the far back corner, facing nothing but a fenced-off empty lot and a catering warehouse. Other peripheral stages on this stop face away from the center of the grounds, but no stage seems as isolated as Hot Topic's.
We're told to come back in an hour and a half to get our start time, so Mike and I hit a liquor store. He gets two fifths of Gordon's gin his medicine of choice for the road and I snag a pint of Bacardi Orange, the poor man's Grand Marnier. Adam and Zach go to a gas station for nonalcoholic supplies. "I use being on tour as a chance to sober up," Zach says.
Postering is the next order of the day. There's no other way to announce the Architects' presence than to scrawl their playing time (which turns out to be 6:50) on posters and put them up on every available surface. Like enterprising high schoolers running for student council, we hit fences, trash cans and port-o-potties. (Later, we'll meet someone who noticed one of our shithouse adverts. He didn't end up coming to the show, but, hey, it's all about getting the name out.)
The crowds form at midmorning, eager to rock out. The majority are minors, and from their collective appearance, they're not the ones having an easy time at school. It's been said before, but much of the appeal of the typical Warped Tour band (i.e., spiky-haired hardcore punk or mop-headed emo) is that its music and persona give succor to teenage angst that has nowhere else to go.
But working in combination with this desire to connect to the music is the teens' blind willingness to consume. Of all the structures at any given Warped Tour, more than half are tents peddling random merchandise and promotional giveaways, from old-school Bob Marley tie-dyed tapestries to come-ons for cell-phone plans. For the most part, the people pushing energy drinks (even "Warped Water" comes in a can designed like an energy drink) are the same types as those employed by PR houses and record labels pimping bands. Most of them are in their twenties, college-educated, clean-cut and of the generation that grew up watching MTV and thinking it would be cool to work at the Spring Break House.
One exception is our friend Keanon Nichols, a Texas-born Kansas City resident with long black hair and a handlebar mustache curled at the ends. He used to work for the tour itself but now works a booth for Epitaph Records. As Warped staffers go, he's friendly, with a gypsy spirit. We spotted him almost immediately upon entering the grounds, and he was nice enough to give us a roll of tape for postering one last thing the boys got out of Epitaph, I suppose.
As we go about taping up the Architects' tasteful, artistic posters (the same as the album cover voodoo skeletons and skulls, a suit of armor, a rose), I wonder, Can this band be sold? Its sound is not emo, metal or trendy retro '80s new wave.
The Architects are one or two generations ahead of their Warped Tour audience which these days is a matter of only a few years and the things they sing about are more nuanced. They play with fire, but it's not the lucrative, sexyboy mania of Panic at the Disco that sells a million records in the band's first year of existence. It's the muscular sweat and energy of Bruce Springsteen. Mike often sound-checks his guitar with the opening riff of "Panama" by Van Halen. And like Mick Jagger in the '60s, Brandon faces a crowd that could (albeit unconsciously) deem his soulful rasp "too black." In the Warped marketplace, all that makes for a hard sell.
Posters up, we spend the afternoon hanging around the merch tent, sitting on instrument cases and handing out the occasional button or sticker, venturing out every so often to see a headliner Helmet or Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. There's a welcome, cool wind blowing over from the nearby Pacific shore; it even becomes chilly toward late afternoon.
Load-in is a bitch. Though we're lucky enough to score a dolly for the big, round drum cases, we have to stack the rectangular amp and guitar cases precariously on the rolling speaker cabinets and push them through the throng, weaving between tents and barking at oblivious festivalgoers. As we roll through the fracas, some asshole steps out of a van emblazoned with New York DIY punk logos and shouts at us, "I don't know what band you are, but you suck!"
"Hey, fuck you!" I shout and keep going.
Hefting equipment, of course, is the main reason I'm here. That's how I earn my per diem, which, in the end, totals $20 for the whole trip. In retrospect, maybe I should have turned down the cash in the name of journalistic integrity. But like just about every sweaty fucker out on the Warped Tour those two days, I was in pure survival mode.
The band before the Architects is a youthful, Japanese replica of Rancid. Its mohawked, leather-clad Asian frontman does all he can to rally the crowd, which dissipates as the Architects set up after the 20-minute set.
The past 36 hours have brought them to this first chance to make some noise, and as they tear into "Black Guitar Kalashnikov," they empty reserves of energy to make the drive pay off.
Eighteen or so people stand and watch. A couple of hippies mosh by themselves up front. The band's energy is mighty and reckless, but the performance is thrown off because Mike and Zach have somehow been forced to swap places on either side of Brandon. They've had very little sound-check time; with the vendor tents already starting to come down, people are beginning to go home.
Twenty minutes later, the guys look drained, even when I tell them the good news that I sold five CDs to fans (never mind that one of the punks also asked me for a smoke, bumming cigs from people being the California state hobby). We quickly begin packing up as a local band, with a female singer whose ass cleavage demands a few moments of observation, starts entertaining three times as many kids as the Architects just played for.
Later that evening, the Architects are treated like royalty by a kid from a band called Left Alone, the newest signee to Tim Armstrong's Hellcat label. Left Alone was also the Warped Tour's barbecue band at least once in the past two years. This kid, Noe a Hispanic Californian with spiky, bleach-blond hair was a huge fan of the Gadjits in his not-so-distant youth. His earnest praise of their first album, from which the Architects have all but divorced themselves, inspires mirth among the Phillips brothers. He helps us crash the barbecue.
All night, until the last of us are too drunk to go on, Noe talks enthusiastically to the Architects about the prospect of a Gadjits reunion in Los Angeles, for which his band, naturally, would open. Noe would even book a tour with them if he could, he says, or just meet them for a few shows in the Midwest. The kid is pumped. But it's not going to happen. The Gadjits are fucking gone. Still, it's nice to be remembered after all, way more people in the Warped world remember the Gadjits, who did the tour in '98 on main stages, than this new band of theirs.
As Valient Thorr storms the afterparty stage, we slink away one by one and flop into the van. Brandon somehow gets us to the next stop, Dodger Stadium, back in Los Angeles. I wake up in the middle of the night to Brandon's wildebeest snoring. I have a bad case of heartburn from the Wild Turkey 101 I'd indiscreetly chosen as my evening's libation.
Morning breaks with the sun blazing through the windows and a security guy in a cart telling us to move our van. Brandon awakes and complies, joining a caravan of other misparked vans and tour buses moving across acres of parking-lot pavement to a fenced-in area that will evidently become the backstage.
There's only one good cure for a dirty-ass hangover, and that's coffee but to get it, subterfuge will be required. There's nothing in sight but hills, parking stripes and a baseball stadium. To leave the grounds on foot would be futile, so Adam and I daringly pilfer the breakfast catering. We still wear yesterday's crumpled wristbands, but luckily the bastards sporting all-access laminates leave us alone.
Other bands are starting to rouse. A ramp comes down from the back of a small trailer, and two guys lie on it like seals, where they will sleep in the diminishing shade for the next two hours. That's about how long Brandon sleeps as well, leaving the rest of us to find out where to check in. Mike decides not to raid the breakfast tent. "I don't want some punk asshole talking down to me because I don't have a fucking all-access pass," he says. (This very thing had happened to him yesterday in Ventura when he nicked a taquito from the dinner line after using his ticket at lunch.)
We follow yesterday's protocol as best we can and look for our stage manager, a woman named Shannon Saturday who has a tattoo of the outline of Oklahoma on her arm. We wait at the Hot Topic tent around 9:45. The heat is already piercing. We return to the van, then back out in search of Saturday half an hour later. We don't find her.
Several hours later, we learn the consequence of this failure. We had looked at the schedule near the stage, which said we would play at 5:40, so we'd drawn up a bunch of posters with that time on them. Mike and I have plastered a good corner of the vast lot when Adam calls and says, "There's been a change. We're playing at 7:25 now."
The posters: trash. Mike: pissed off.
We find the Phillips brothers waiting by the Hot Topic stage for Saturday to return with our wristbands and meal tickets. Standing in the open glare, we are forced to watch a ridiculous all-girl emo band strut before an inexplicably enthusiastic crowd. I shield my face from the sun with the remaining posters. Saturday finally returns and graciously gives us our due, amid apologies from the guys. Mike has stormed off to the van, fully aware that he should feel lucky to still be playing but nonetheless in need of some good sulking.
We join the long line at catering, nearly collapsing from hunger before reaching the buffet, which is rife with burgers, hot dogs, soups, fruit, fries and rings. As was the case yesterday, the only beverages available are Hansen's Natural Sodas and sandy-tasting water from orange jugs.
At the lunch table, we sit with an assortment of older A&R guys from various labels, friends of the band from back in the day. It's strange to be surrounded by these seeming star makers, but the truth is that none of them has the power to help the Architects directly, so there's no point in getting down and blowing any of them.
We spend most of the afternoon in the van with the engine running and the AC on because it's too damn hot outside. We guzzle 10-ounce bottles of Glaceau Vitamin Water, a sugary fluid supposedly filled with replenishing nutrients, several cases of which Mike scored from giveaway tents. (I probably put on 3 pounds from drinking that calorie-ridden birdfeeder juice.)
A friend of the band's, Jason Henry, who works in television out here but used to work at Epitaph in the Gadjits' day, takes Mike and Zach and me to a Mexican restaurant, where we order giant, expensive margaritas, eat chips and shoot the bull. The café, secluded in an alleyway full of souvenir stands, with two old guys playing guitars at the tables, is a pleasureful retreat. Just being waited on feels like the privilege of kings. I am embarrassed when I go into the bathroom and look at my unkempt mug in the mirror.
At 6 p.m., back at the van, we cart our equipment up the littered pavement hill to the stage. One of the A&R guys from lunch gives us a hand. In fact, the audience for our late show is made up only of those useless but supportive A&R reps, plus our friend Keanon, Noe from Left Alone, and a few stragglers. Screamo bands A Static Lullaby and Greeley Estates break chunks off the granite façade of good music at nearby stages, rendering the Architects inaudible from my place at the merch table. I sell one CD. But the Architects, again, play too well for anyone to feel bummed about money.
There's no barbecue tonight, so we hang out with Keanon and a few pals in the parking lot, drinking Pabst Genuine Draft, which we didn't know existed. Rather than hit the road right away, we drive to a friend's Hollywood apartment to take showers and unwind a little before rolling out once and for all. The friend, whose name is Jeff Allen, lives with his girlfriend in a $1,000-a-month two-bedroom, two-bath apartment just a few minutes' walk from the Strip. They seem too young to have such a fancy place, bedecked as it is with actual furniture and art and sporting a large back balcony. Allen produces films not big movies but big enough. It hasn't gone to his head, though; he cooks us hot dogs in their toaster oven, fetches us cans of beer and offers puffs from an enormous Alice in Wonderland-like bong, which I stay the hell away from.
Going home takes longer. I even take a turn at the wheel, driving from Flagstaff to just outside Albuquerque.
It's the driving that finally makes me feel like part of the group, I guess because it puts not only everything they own but also their lives in my hands. That's the reason I didn't want to drive on the way to the shows. I would've hated to be the reason that they didn't get to play.
After all, this isn't what I do for a living. But the trip has made me better at my own job.
For the band, there's no question about whether the trip was worth it. Maybe they lost some money in the short run, but the whole effort was an investment. They could get a call this month from a major label whose representative saw them play, or they could be invited to join the whole Warped Tour next year. Or they could get jack shit. It's a simple case of nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The Architects were bred for this kind of life. They barely had their pubes when they went on their first big tour. (Adam was 14 years old.) On the way home from this particular trip, they're fully aware that they've just driven to California, slept four nights in a van and played for next to nobody. They're just not that bummed about it.
"You're pretty much accepting failure if you play it safe," Adam says.
Maybe they end up playing for hundreds of fans in midsized bars all around the world. Brandon would be satisfied with that. "One way or the other, I will carve out my fucking life in this business," he says.
In the meantime, they'll keep making these exhausting, expensive drives, brushing their teeth only every other day, sleeping in their clothes and drinking gin to unwind. They're an American band it's what they do.