Europe Feels Their Payne
Let's say you've got an ace band going. You've got some songs and a self-released CD. You've done bits of regional touring over the past few years. You've accumulated a fan base and a good amount of laudatory press. People are talking about your band, and the sense is something good could happen soon.
But now you're anxious with a misguided desire. You have it in your head that you should do a European tour.
In a complete understatement, obstacles litter your path.
You have no record company or booking agent, no manager or European contacts. Moreover, you're broke, except the chump change you saved up from delivering pizzas to chubby suburbanites or slinging burgers in a titty joint.
What are the chances?
Well, Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Product just returned from a seven-week tour of Europe. Les Payne, as they are often called, had no record company, booking agent, manager, trust fund or Euro contacts. What Les Payne did have is chutzpah -- and the ability to entertain.
The only record Les Payne has is a two-year-old CD, Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Product.
If you have never seen the band, Les Payne is a picturesque and noisy collision of skewered pop-songy references, meter changes, singsong glory and coordinated outfits. Shows are street-corner theater, only ear-splitting. And the band's two hombres, Chris Pomerenke (kazoo, keyboards, drums, vocals, etc.) and James Karnes (guitar, vocals, etc.), make a colorful tumult that assimilates Zappa and the Knack with Half Japanese and Suicide.
All that, and Les Payne somehow succeeds in sidestepping dreaded novelty.
An Internet site made it possible for Les Payne to tour Europe. Six months ago, a tour such as this could not have happened.
The tour -- dubbed Lush Budget Presents the Play All Over Europe Tour 2000 -- set a do-it-yourself precedent. I don't know of any other band anywhere that can lay claim to utilizing a single Internet site -- MP3.com -- to successfully launch and complete a European tour.
Go figure. An unknown band headlining its own European tour, playing its music for the kids (an average of 50 to 60 people a night). Few heavily commerced baby bands on major labels can lay claim to that.
The tour kicked off in Denmark on January 12, and saw the band connect the dots in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. The tour ended in Germany on February 17.
The whole Les Payne tour was booked country by country, city by city, local band by local band. On MP3.com, you can go to artists by region, and pretty much anywhere in the world, and ultimately make contact via e-mail.
Pomerenke and Karnes met Brendan T. Morse -- a west Phoenix Ben Folds look-alike -- at a Les Payne show in Tucson. Morse later moved to Denmark to marry, but stayed in contact with the band, and Morse offered to help set up a European tour.
If there is a theme running this Euro jaunt, it is not so much related to Internet success as it is grim yet buoyant truths of indie touring.
This tour's theme morphs the usual Spinal Tap prophesizing with Conrad's Heart of Darkness: a trying wintertime journey through Europe led by Morse, who slowly loses his mind.
Yes, Morse is the messianic character of Conrad's Kurtz. Morse basically booked the whole tour through MP3.com while fronting his own band called Crowded Orifice. Morse formed Crowded Orifice -- with three massive Danes -- specifically to open for Les Payne on the tour. The twentysomething Morse had no more experience fronting a band than he had booking a tour.
He compiled Crowded Orifice by rounding up musicians from Copenhagen bars.
"He would say, 'Hey, I'm an American. I'm into the whole Seattle grunge thing,'" says Pomerenke.
Morse demonstrated considerable booking skills. In each town, he managed to get the local bands on the bill to play for free yet turn over all proceeds to Les Payne and Crowded Orifice. And he had no trouble finagling just a little more.
"Sometimes," says Karnes, "two days before we were to arrive in a city, he would call and say, 'And yeah, we were supposed to get food for eight people, is that still cool? And you were going to put us up, right?'
"He got us food and places to stay," adds Pomerenke. "He did a lot, a lotta work. He lost his mind and lost his life promoting this one tour. And he got together these four other guys to along with him.
"If we were going to Düsseldorf, he [Morse] would e-mail the only six bands that would be on the [MP3.com] Düsseldorf roster. And out of the ones that e-mailed us back, he would have them hook up the show, and that band would be on the bill as a headliner."
But as the tour unfolded, Morse slowly degenerated. At one point he refrained from sleeping. He lived on chocolate and Diet Coke. Three days before the tour concluded, Morse, while polishing his boots, ordered Pomerenke to "stand down."
"I was like, 'Oh my God, that's a fucking military word,'" says Karnes. "This guy's totally lost his mind."
The men of Crowded Orifice and Les Payne grew to dislike their errant skipper.
"We were in the middle of one of his impromptu meetings, which became kind of routine throughout the tour," says Pomerenke. "He was giving us this speech about how he had broken his back at this. In the middle of the speech, he spit out a tooth. And at that point nobody really cared."
Les Payne and Crowded Orifice schlepped to all 22 dates in an old Volkswagen van, pulling a trailer. Maximum speed was 45 mph.
A Danish roadie named Fallos (pronounced Phallus) with Viking tats came along. ("Fallos made us watch Spinal Tap five nights in a row," chortles Pomerenke.)
All told, the small van carried four giant Danes, Morse, Pomerenke and Karnes.
"Over e-mails we were being told that this was to be a Volkswagen 'bus,'" Pomerenke says. "But we didn't realize that they called those old vans buses."
The Crowded Orifice title spurred curiosity.
"Nobody in Europe knew what that word meant," says Karnes. "After every show, somebody would walk up to them and say, 'What is orifice?'"
Like many Europeans, Crowded Orifice still adores hard rock. Hard rock of the '80s-tattoo-nose-ring-rattlesnake-cowboy-boot-combo variety.
"The guitarist from Crowded Orifice was named Janus, and so it was Janus and Fallos in the van," Pomerenke says, laughing. "He loved all those glam bands from L.A. that got signed in the '80s . . . like Pretty Boy Floyd and whoever. You'd be talking to Janus and he's making total sense, then he's like, (affecting a Danish inflection) 'Have you heard the new Warrant album? It's really, really good. You have to hear that one.' And he means it. It's so weird."
The tour officially started in Karlstad, Sweden. Les Payne played a huge discotheque with a group of Weezerish sounding teens called Saul. They played 15-minute sets between a live DJ.
Pomerenke says, "That was one of the better shows. We sound-checked, went down to the dressing room, came back up and there was 150 17-year-olds already dancing their asses off. And they stuck around all the way to the end at 3 o'clock in the morning to see us, 'cause we went on at midnight."
Payne also played some puny cafe shows around Copenhagen. The first was in an Irish bar in which the vernacular of choice was, of course, English. They were paid 2,000 Danish crowns ($285) and sold two CDs and no tee shirts.
"That was odd being in Denmark and playing an Irish bar," Karnes says. "It was like, 'All right, we are in Europe! We're in Copenhagen! And you're all speaking English!'"
The band played a club in Copenhagen called Ungdomshuset, and got a good response. The building was your basic, oversize Euro squatter whose upstairs room was taken over by punk rocker/artist types.
"Guys with metal coming out of different parts of their skin," says Pomerenke of the building denizens. "Breathing beer right into your face saying, 'There is more of us than there is of you.'"
Karnes says that the Reeperbahn in Hamburg was home to another unruly show. The club the band played was a 24-hour bar sandwiched between peep shows and porn stores, a half-mile away from the Starclub, which the Beatles once called home. The venue was full of drunks meaner than swastika-wielding punks.
"At 4 p.m., people were asleep on the bar," Karnes says. "We had to move the foosball table so we could play. We thought we were gonna have to fire our way outta there. Those people weren't even there to hear music. They were there to get shit-faced and whatever happens."
But the band, Karnes adds, had the teetering thugs in its hand by set's end.
"Sure enough, two bands played, then we went on, and by the end of it, they're shouting, 'You now play one more! You must now play more!'"
The place was full of punks. Mohawks and leather and army boots and spikes.
"Some of the places we played were like being on tour in Idaho. Here, graffiti was everywhere. Things like 'Fuck the American Lifestyle' or 'Smash Racism' or 'Smash Nazis.'"
The thinnest tour turnout was in Amsterdam, where Les Payne opened for an unpopular metal outfit called Dastard. Dastard was the whole of the audience.
Pomerenke and Karnes are pro-weed and pro-drink and don't sleep together, and were faithful to their girlfriends on the road.
As your high-school-weaned stateside stoners, Les Payne quickly discovered the joys of overseas hash. Having never smoked it, the stuff was a welcome change from the homestead weed.
"We smoked hash every single night," says Pomerenke, working up a wry smile to emphasize his point. "Well, almost every night.
"In Amsterdam we played at a hotel that had a lounge with a big PA," he continues. "We played right in the middle of the red-light district. They were selling mushrooms and hash in the corner. We went out and saw some girls on display.
"There were big girls, 250-pounders (Pomerenke adds farting noises), but there are a couple that are super hot. And if you make any eye contact longer than like two seconds, they are all over you.
"After that, everything on tour was funny, with big Danes running around yelling at each other in a foreign language."
One night the VW tour van was stopped at the German border. The Les Payne boys couldn't find their passports and everybody was ordered out of the van.
Roadie Fallos "had a little brick of hash in his hand. And I was driving," continues Pomerenke. "When we got to the border, they're like, 'Pahs-ports.' And the whole time Fallos is walking around out in front of border security with the hash in his hand, ready to eat it if they ask him the wrong question!"
The beer, too, Les Payne says, is heady, 12-liter monsters with 10 percent alcohol. Crowded Orifice would swill it all night, could drink Les Payne under the table.
Les Payne returned home having, unbelievably, broken even. After 22 dates in four countries, Les Payne had sold dozens of tee shirts and CDs, and established a fan base from which it can launch future Euro tours. They got high, drunk, froze across countrysides in a VW van that had a hose fixed from the motor to the cab blowing hot air, and won over crowds of American-haters.
They slept on floors, couches, in hotels and in strangers' houses while other strangers copulated loudly in the next room.
And they know going on tour is exhilaration -- a reclaiming of lost enthusiasm.
And all due, they say, to the Internet.
Pomerenke says, "Minus, maybe, a couple hundred dollars, we did okay. And as unromantic as it sounds, it was MP3.com and this crazy kid addicted to chocolate.
"The tour was half done already when it dawned on us that we should contact MP3.com for a tour sponsorship," says Pomerenke. "We are trying to do the same thing with Mexico City right now. But there are only six bands (listed on MP3) there.
"But," he says stopping mid-sentence. He smiles. "There are other sites."
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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