Man, I wish they'd had Roadtrip Nation in 1997, when I was fresh out of college and wondering what to do with myself. My roommate and I were scraping by from paycheck to paycheck with entry-level office jobs, and student loan payments on our overpriced educations hadn't even kicked in yet. There was a drastic disconnect between the glamorous grown-up lives we'd imagined -- Music! Art! Fashion! -- and the mundane reality of living on ramen noodles and catching the bus to punch a time clock. We felt so confused about the future that we actually consulted with a Magic Eightball on a regular basis.
Then eventually somebody invented the term "quarter-life crisis," and even wrote a book about it. I simultaneously sighed in relief and smacked myself for not coming up with it first.
Several years ago, a group of recent grads faced the same kind of existential drama but dealt with it by hopping in a van, driving 15,000 miles around the country for three months, and videotaping interviews with a ton of influential people about how they got to where they are in life. Roadtrip Nation: The Open Road was born. The 2001 documentary spawned a book two years later, and now it's a PBS series that follows different teams of young people around the country.
So if you're searching for the meaning of life, you can actually apply for a grant from Roadtrip Nation and they'll help subsidize your wanderlust with a few hundred dollars. It's a pretty cool idea in general -- the variety of current projects spans from "Understanding Activists on the Arizona Border" to "Adult Film Industry Exposed" -- but what's especially interesting is how an indie band from Dallas, Texas, is working as a Roadtrip documentary team while on tour. It's DIY multitasking at its finest, and a novel idea to boot. (Phoenix bands need to get in on this!)
I met Shanghai 5 last week when they were at the Trunk Space, part of a lineup that included L.A.'s Voodoo Organist (which was touring for the first time with two drummers), and Bikeula, a noisy, fun new band with Eli Kuner and Tom Filardo from Asleep in the Sea and Eddy Crichton and Greg Campanile from Reindeer Tiger Team. The fire-eating, glass-crunching, wisecracking Steve Strange, Phoenix's one-man freak show, was master of ceremonies. (He was hilarious, although the funniest thing about his appearance was when he was stroking his bare torso with a flaming wand and a dude from the audience blurted out, "So much for the happy trail!")
Phoenix was Shanghai 5's first stop on an itinerary that's taking them to the major cities in California, plus Denver, Austin, and New Orleans. According to lanky, dark-haired Reid Robinson, who plays laptop and keyboard, they booked the entire thing themselves, focusing on playing shows at small art spaces instead of bars.
"We didn't want to get bored on the road, and this is a good way to meet people," he told me out in the parking lot, while the Catorce improv group was performing inside.
"Yeah, it does double duty," added front woman Amy Curnow, a petite, tattooed gal with punky blond streaks in her hair and a soft Texas accent.
They've had no problem getting the two-year-old band's music out there; Robinson described it as "somewhere between the Velvet Underground and a circus dirge, with a little electronica" (I'll add that there's a heavy dose of lounge exotica). He mentioned that a song from their self-released album Under a Tent, Under a Full Moon recently made it to number 39 on the CMJ singles chart, and I think this tour is sure to raise their profile even more when the Roadtrip Nation episode airs in August. Shanghai 5's project is called "Alternative America: The Revolution Never Ended!"; according to their mission statement online, they're "interviewing people on the fringe of music, writing, art, and digital convergence," along with various quirky characters they meet.
A project like this could easily go awry -- I mean, you can make any place look interesting or awful, depending on how you edit the footage -- but from what the band members told me about their encounters so far, I believe they'll do justice to our scene. In the space of one day, they hit up a Who's Who of the downtown arts community, with a few pols in there for good measure: Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot; mixed-media artist Susan Copeland; musician Donald Martinez, who runs the brilliant local music site TheShizz.org; John McKay, owner of Suitcase Recordings; actor/playwright Chris Danowski from Theatre in My Basement; and Gregory Sale from Arizona Commission on the Arts, among others. JRC and Stephanie Carrico, owners of the Trunk Space, gave them a generous number of referrals.
Everyone got equal time to answer the same basic set of questions about how they found their paths in life, and how they may have resisted pressure to conform.
Curnow said that one thing a lot of their subjects mentioned was gentrification. They're all worried about how it will affect downtown in the coming months and years. After talking to Mohawked bassist Gregg Prickett next door at Bikini Lounge, I knew that Shanghai 5 was on a similar wavelength, because he ranted about an old Dallas neighborhood where warehouses and bohemian art spaces are getting torn down to make way for upscale housing and trendy, soulless clubs.
I hope that's not the Ghost of Phoenix Future. For now, at least, this city made a positive impression on our visitors.
"I think we got a good picture of Phoenix," said Robinson. "I always thought of it as this cold, corporate place, but the artist community is really thriving."
Tell me about it. I haven't had to consult my Magic Eightball in a long time.
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