I like living out of a backpack. Having been away from the Van Nuys apartment that I call home for the better part of the last two months, I’d been traveling and surviving on only the most slim of personal cargo: a laptop, some toiletries, and a few changes of clothes. I prefer it that way. It’s simple, practical, and leaves no confusion as to which possession to grab in the event of fire. I’d save my trusty backpack, everything else could burn.
I’ve never been too sentimental about material things. There’s some artwork and memorabilia from the various projects I’ve worked on over the years that I’d be bummed to lose, but nothing that I wouldn’t shed if the right adventure called.
I say all of this not because I hate belongings, but because I love adventure more. And returning home to the domestic life of stationary things and routines is a difficult transition to make, especially after just completing a journey that was oozing with daring and passion and purpose.
The journey was The American Wake Tour. The six-week adventure was a mix of live music, performance art, historical reenactment, and, most importantly, community. It was the debut trek of a project dreamed-up by my longtime friend and creative partner, Saar Hendelman, and I. We wrote a collection of murder ballads set in 1816 America, assembled a caravan of friends and strangers, asked audiences to dress up in period-appropriate mourning garb, and invited everyone to join us for a live historical wake.
The journey spanned thirty-five American cities. Although our backpacks were kept trim, our tour van was loaded with costumes, props, set pieces (including a coffin), and a sound system. We were a modern traveling medicine show that could turn any room with electricity into a themed event. And we did.
The crew included three musicians who Saar and I performed with nightly. These talented and brave souls—who we’d never met in the flesh prior to rehearsals a few days before the start of the tour—crawled into a van with us and three other strangers. They didn’t quite know what to expect, but were game for adventure, and trusted that Saar and I were crazy enough to pull off this imaginative and ambitious caper. We shared not only the stage, but hotel rooms, and all eight of us virtually lived together for a month-and-a-half in a fifteen-seat passenger van that we dubbed “The Murder Wagon”.
Our trio of musicians, who changed their band name nightly, included Corinne Olsen on fiddle, Jonathan Sloan (our token Canadian) on upright bass, and Jada Wagensomer on banjo and keyboard (and sometimes kazoo). Having never performed together previously, they were quick studies with our music, rolled with the punches during wildly unscripted portions of our set, and became characters who played a major role in the narrative arc of each Wake. They also became fast friends with each other, with us, and with our awesome fanbase.
Darius Hamilton-Smith and Begoña Fernández Martin were also newbies to our touring crew, as was Spencer Watson, who joined our wayward team for an extended week of tour dates in November, driving The Murder Wagon through some of the most grueling overnight treks along the Pacific Northwest.
Darius acted as ninja of all things technical, running and overseeing sound and lights for each Wake, and Begoña served as roady and tour photographer. She took our nightly VIP (Very Important Parishioner) photos, which are available in albums, labeled by city, on American Murder Song‘s official Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/thekillingplace).
I met Begoña online when she won The Molting Comic’s “Leave Yer Mark” Art Contest in 2010. She flew in from the UK to be a part of The American Wake Tour, which allowed us to finally meet in person.
Our tour manager, Kelly “Scully” Rybarczyk, was the only alumni to our expedition. Scully and I have survived three tours together, and she is the lynchpin of our murder team, acting both as den mother and slave driver to our sorry lot. She’s such a badass that during The American Wake Tour she attracted the attention of the management of one of her favorite artists, Mike Doughty, and has since been hired to assistant manage his 2017 US tour.
On The American Wake Tour, this team of old and new blood became family. We loved what we were creating, and this sense of kinship seemed to extend to and from the audience as well. There were of course rough nights, but there were also brilliant ones.
Touring, we spent Halloween together, partying and performing for a room full of exuberant, beautiful weirdos in Tampa. We mourned on election night with a Denver crowd who, like us, seemed to need a distraction from the bizarre course on which our country is embarking.
The ups, downs, highs, and lows all came together in a journey that was magical, both for us and (we hope) the audience. The experience was so transformative that, at tour’s end, half of our murder crew went to a tattoo parlor in Hollywood and got marked together, including yours truly.
Speaking of markings, during the tour, Scully would manage the weekly disbursement of crew payments. She’d fork over cash in envelopes with the caveat that everyone had to draw something on their envelope and return it before they’d received their next payment. This tradition began on The Devil’s Carnival tours and has always produced imaginative and hilarious (and sometimes disturbing) results. It also presented the very real challenge of trying to draw in a moving vehicle—especially one towing a twelve foot trailer—as it traversed bumps, hills and turns.
Envelopes weren’t my only canvass aboard The Murder Wagon. During the tour, Saar and I made the decision to manufacture a comprehensive American Murder Song Box Set. We wanted said Set—which wold consist of two compact discs of music and one DVD documenting the complete American Murder Song journey—to be boxed inside a replica of the hexagonal compass featured in our murder music videos.
The task fell on me to draw diagrams of how the Compass Box Set might work, drawings that would communicate our ideas with an overseas manufacturing company. After a few back-and-forths with doodles, we pulled the trigger on a design that is currently in production, and is available for pre-order in our online store.
I know I opened this blog with an anti-possession sentiment, but I’m now revising the contents of my emergency backpack to include this sweet ass Compass Box Set… because what better instrument to signify adventure than a compass.
We’ve tried to squeeze all of the adventure and love and art of this past year of American Murder Song into this Box Set. It’s a truly special item, and we’re only making 1500 of them. So if you’re looking for something to give (or get!) this holiday season, you may want to consider stuffing your stockings with a little bit of adventure… and murder: http://www.AmericanMurderSong.com/GetBloody.
There are so many more tour stories to share and people to thank—too many to include in a single blog post—so I’ll be sharing more tour tales and photos in the weeks to come. In the meantime, get yer compasses and adventure on, Trav’lrs!