On Tour With Blouse25/04/2012
In early December I received an unexpected email from my friend Paul Roper, who lives in Portland, Oregon. It said that he would be touring with a band called Blouse through Italy in February, and that he hoped we could meet up. The last time I had seen Paul had been over a year ago when we had very briefly played ping-pong on a snowy night in Dalston, so the prospect excited me. I penciled in a trip to Bologna’s Covo Club, then promptly forgot all about it.
February came along rather quickly, and the whole of Europe, after what had been a mild winter, snap froze. Tucked away in a ski resort in Switzerland I remembered the plan, and was struck with terrible visions of being stranded in neck-deep snow on a regional train in central Italy for 12 hours. Regardless, I bravely embarked on my train journey from atop a Swiss mountain to an Italian town famous for it’s ragù. At midday I boarded the furniculaire that would take me to the bottom of the Rhone Valley from where I would take my train to Milan. An elderly couple opposite me wore matching geometric-patterned purple and green ski one-pieces, which had been meticulously looked after since their purchase in the mid 1980s. They sat with their foreheads almost touched, as they had since they were courting teens, discussing, in excited Swiss-French, the downhill slalom ski race they had just witnessed. The man’s mittened hand gripped a miniature Swiss flag, and the lady held a floral tote, from which she pulled the piece of cheese that she smilingly offered the ticket inspector when he came by.
My companion on my train journey under the alps was a very talkative German lady who often forgot she needed to speak to me in English, and would regularly revert to her mother tongue, only realizing when she noticed my bemused expression, that I wasn’t following. A quick change at the Milano Centrale, and I was on the last regional train to Bologna. Packed full of Friday evening commuters, I immersed myself in my book and nibbled at a piece of salty focaccia from a grease stained bag, trying to ignore my Anglo-Saxon guilt about the fact that people were standing in the aisles while I sat comfortably (as comfortable as one can be in a regional Italian train) in my seat. Three hours later I arrived at Bologna parched, due to my refusal to drink on trains (I have a public toilet phobia), and took a taxi to the venue.
The Covo Club is a rabbit warren of a place, and once I had ascended the clanging steel staircase, I followed my ear through three bars to find Blouse onstage (for the penultimate gig of their first European tour) in a back room, shrouded in the red lit smoke that crept upwards from the crowd that stood before them absorbing their dreamy synth-infused pop. Charlie Hilton stood over them, ethereal, armed with a guitar and shielded by a mass of long dark hair framed on the right by Patrick Adams on bass and to the left by Misty Marie on synth. Behind them sat Paul, looking like Waldo had joined a band, wearing the same tee shirt he had been wearing when I saw him a year ago (“Only in COPENHAGEN”). I tried to wave, but then some skinny Morrisey look-alikes noticed me, with my giant overnight bag, and I felt incredibly uncool so I went to the bar to get a much-needed beer to quench my focaccia induced thirst that I had momentarily forgotten.
After the gig, and a few more beers, I found my way to the tiny back room, plastered with posters from past gigs, where the band was being interviewed by an awkward, skinny hipster called Massimo. I sat down, feeling a little drunk, and was relieved when Paul offered me a beer from their rider so that I had something to focus on rather than staring at the floor feeling like everyone was wondering who I was and why I was in that tiny room with them. After the interview, and ensuing introductions, we went downstairs and Patrick proudly showed me the Michael Jackson zippo lighter that he had bought at a flea market earlier that day. Charlie and Misty wanted to dance, and Massimo joined them, bringing his friend who wore a balaclava, and stood around wordlessly watching. After a bit, we decided to check out the Bologna night-life, and took a taxi to a piazza which was filled with broken glass and ragazzi. Dotted around the outside of the piazza were crowded neon-signed bars playing typically horrendous music. We immediately returned to the venue, by which time it had emptied out. Misty, Charlie, Massimo and his mysterious balaclava’d friend were nowhere to be seen, so Paul, Patrick and I returned to the ‘hotel’ which was actually some kind of weird army-base style cabin, with a beige interior on the edge of town, which reminded me of a school camp. Not long after, Charlie and Misty returned eating risotto and having an earnest discussion about Downton Abbey, while out the window, a rooster crowed incessantly. It was around 4 AM.
The next morning I woke up early remembering how long it had been since I had drunk that much beer, and what a horrendous hangover it caused me to have. I emerged into the bright morning sun and walked past lines of German number-plated camper vans to find a bar where I bought coffee and lemon soda, and upon returning I found the group ready to leave. We got into our giant van, driven by Tomas the Czech veteran-band-transporter and headed to the Autostrada. “Yay, Rome!” I exclaimed, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, given my throbbing headache. “Oh, you’re coming to Rome with us?” Charlie asked, amicably surprised.
Given the events of night before, the drive to Rome was a quiet one, punctuated by stops for food and petrol. The first, at Autogrill for sandwiches to absorb last night’s alcohol was like stepping into a wonderland of Italian tourists in sparkly tops, giant chupa chups and a serpentine exit route through a gift store overflowing with enormous pieces of cured meat, bags of pasta and crackers, oversized soft bunnies and teddy bears, hats and scarves from your choice of European championships league football team, and pharmaceutical goods. Back in the van there was much sleeping through the tunnels of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, and half-listening to Paul’s zany American science-bombardment style podcasts about rats in rooms with three blue walls listening to Verdi. Patrick proudly showed me the green marker pen portraits that the band had drawn of each other in Paris for ‘60 Seconds Left’, a Pitchfork thing. Our next stop was for petrol not far out of Rome, and we again got to explore the wonders of the Italian roadside convenience stop. This time on offer were mainly pictures of various popes on various objects (mugs, teatowels, fridge magnets, calendars, etc). Still too hung over to make decisions about buying foodstuffs, I instead ventured into the toilets. Sometimes you are lucky enough to get a toilet seat, sometimes you get nothing more than a hole in the ground. Here was the latter, and I emerged feeling worse than before, to find Patrick and Paul standing giggling over a vending machine. “He bought the!” Paul, king of the Dad joke, sniggered pointing at Patrick who was holding a peach coloured bottle of iced tea (in Italian thé). We got back in the van. “We are five!” the band chorused, before Thomas had a chance to do a head count. Half an hour later we were in Rome, and my hangover magically disappeared as a direct result of the sighting of a Roman aqueduct “I think that’s the oldest thing I have ever seen” said Patrick, as we drove under an arch that had been cut into the structure to make way for a road, “apart from maybe some rocks”.
We happily piled out of the van, stretching like cats, and wandered around a car park waiting to be let into the venue. Fliers for a Queen tribute band were plastered to dumpsters that sat under the aqueduct that towered above us. The sun was out, and doves in the nearby trees were calling out to each other “Wahoo! Wahoo!” Patrick proudly demonstrated his uncannily realistic cricket sound, which was then imitated by a caged parrot in a residential tower above us. Once inside the venue, Circolo degli Artisti, which had a large, luscious garden and a grassy area covered in enormous dog turds, (which presumably belonged to the arthritic dog who stood in a cage lazily barking at us without opening it’s mouth,) we sat in the sun under a lemon tree taking advantage of free wireless internet and waiting for something to happen. Finally, when the sun had pushed us to the far end of the garden, and our hunger was evolving into anger, the smiling promoters Vincenzo and Davide arrived, and organized soundcheck, while I happily sat backstage with snacks.
After dinner, the gig began, and the first three rows of the large crowd exclusively consisted of tall men with cameras and obnoxious, pointy, drink-spilling elbows. The brick room was lit a purple-blue, and the band played their set list with zero banter, the dreamy music and whiskey I was drinking making me forget about the camera-toting giants in front of me. After the gig I waited backstage, which had filled with unfamiliar faces, for the band to return. Alongside Davide, we went out into the giant garden, which was filled shoulder to shoulder with shouting Romans drinking pink drinks out of plastic cups. Charlie ordered one, (“can I please have one of the pink drinks that everyone else is having?”) which turned out to be Sex on the Beach. Paul tried to explain to me the system by which Portland houses are numbered, but I was to drunk to listen. A group of moochy slick dudes in ripped jeans asked Patrick for a cigarette. “Sorry I don’t have any” he replied. “Oh, you are American?” said one of the Slick Dudes, opening his denim jacket and pointing to his James Dean tee shirt. “You like James Dean?” “Yeah” Patrick said, politely. “So you got any cigarettes?” Slick Dude asked. “No, sorry.” We started throwing ice at a couple kissing passionately beside us. The shots at the bar were the size of a Starbucks coffee, and the rest of the evening was hazy.
The next day we were woken up in our dark hotel room late and well rested. Out the window, behind thick layers of heavy carpet-like curtains, was a small park in which five dogs of various sizes were standing around in a circle barking, as if they were having some kind of a dog meeting. It was the last day of the tour before the band left for home at six the following morning. We dragged ourselves out of bed (me through the fire exit that I had vague memories of entering through the night before to avoid having to pay for my stay) and made our way single file along a suburban Roman road in the direction of where we hoped to find food. We wandered into a restaurant and ordered; buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto crudo, deep-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies, and pasta alla carbonara. The food was extraordinarily good, and the place filled up to capacity with locals having their Sunday family lunch within minutes of our arrival. The plump curly haired family opposite us wore matching AC Milan tracksuits. Paul returned from the bathroom after lunch excitedly announcing that there was a toilet seat, and that he thought the bathroom might have been “in a catacomb”.
After lunch we headed by train into the city for some sight seeing, and to meet up with Davide, who had promised gelato and flea markets. My enthusiasm for Rome is irrepressible, and on my last trip there I had spent 12 hours walking like a maniac until my feet were covered in a thick layer of black dirt that took several baths to remove. Davide delivered us to both flea markets and gelato, as well as delicious coffee from Caffè Tazza D’Oro. It was the perfect ending to what for me was a whirlwind trip, from frozen Switzerland to Spring in Rome. I was refreshed by excellent music and new friends, and I returned happily to work in Milan with a spring in my step, and ‘Into Black’ rotating in my head.
Photographer - Blouse Tumblr/Shayna Fontana and Kirsten Mitchell