Tour Diary Pages: February

Photos by Jess Garten

Words by Sky Madden

MINNEAPOLIS TO CHICAGO

Precious cargo: Augustus “Gus” Muller and Jae Matthews of Boy Harsher.

4,000 miles. 22 toll booths. -14 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Two double mattresses. One mushy red apple. A stick of powdery gum. Six friends. One black van.

I’m behind the wheel. My girlfriend is sitting next to me reloading 35mm film into a camera, cold to the metal touch I’m sure. My precious cargo is Jae and Gus from the band Boy Harsher, their sound engineer Icio Spada and Kristina Esfandiari, and their direct support act NGHTCRWLR. Jae is splayed across Gus—both asleep—in the shabby first row of a van which has undoubtedly seen the butts of many bands before it. Kris is in the back looking out the window, earbuds in, she’s nodding along to something she’s digging.

We’re somewhere between Minneapolis and Chicago and there’s nothing but blankets of silvery icy white. You can’t tell the skyline apart from the sheets of frozen snow covering the rolling hills along the highway. But we keep driving. Driving into the unknown.

Icio Spada, Matthews and Muller enjoying a breakfast of champions.

Even though we’ve been here before, we don’t know what’s going to happen next. There’s a show tonight so it fills us with hope to face the below freezing conditions. There’s a show tonight, so it inspires us with the chance to dance. A chance to meet someone new. A chance to feel a different way about the world.

This is a tour.  Something paradoxically filled with the mundane as well as the unpredictable.

Muller and Matthews in the basement kitchen of Loring (Minneapolis, MN) before stepping on stage.
Jae Matthews of Boy Harsher.
Muller in a Chicago warehouse preparing for a live session filmed by Audiotree.
Hand over heart: Gus and Jae at The Empty Bottle in Chicago, IL.
Kristina Esfandiari transforming into NGHTCRWLR The Empty Bottle.
Esfandiari and Heather Gabel of HIDE at The Empty Bottle.
Boy Harsher, NGHTCRWLR and crew post show at The Empty Bottle.
Old friends reunited in peace: Tour manager Sky Madden and Kristina Esfandiari at a warehouse space in West Chicago, IL.
Green room remnants.

CHICAGO TO DETROIT

After 7 years of touring intermittently with mostly California based bands and my own band Chasms, there’s one element of touring that I can say definitely keeps the morale high in any group. That element is the almost daily experience of seeing a familiar face—whether its a peer, an old friend or someone new who you’ve just connected with and made plans in the van to meet up with them at the show.

A constant buzz of excitement through the treacherous conditions of the midwest was everyone’s awaited interaction with Detroit electro techno magic legends ADULT.

We were so cold and in the van for so long I think everyone was:

A) Excited to play in a town that is historically has been in a permanent electronic music “state of mind”

and

B) Boy Harsher and now the rest of us were looking forward to connecting with Adam (Miller) and Nicola (Kuperus) of ADULT.

Never having met Adam, but hearing for years how amazing and genuine the couple that is ADULT.,  my experience with them chalked up to the reputation that precedes them. While packing up the merch table Adam struck up a conversation with me. Boy Harsher had just delivered an emotional yet entirely danceable encore. We exchanged some ‘how are you’s’ and he said, “This feels special, I feel like this is a special time. Do you feel like it’s a special time Sky?” Wow, I thought to myself. Here is an accomplished, older white male who is asking me a question. How rare! How nice! I was so pleased and I reflected, I concurred. I said, “Yes! It truly feels like a special time for music.” A little bit nervous because after all these years I never met Adam and so the brief interaction throttled me into deep thought about what he had meant and what I felt inscriably apart of on this tour with Boy Harsher and NGHTCRWLR.

That sentiment that Adam and I identified broadened for me in the wake of the Detroit show and rang true for me the entire tour. Watching the opening acts that Boy Harsher selected during this leg of their North American tour each night, I saw in our country something vital. Take Richmond’s totally wild Aesthetic Barrier whom call themselves a “minimal synth trans explosion” to Toronto’s Warden, CA, a group that enjoys an ex member of Jokers on the Scene making icy glitch electro. Then there was the refreshingly bizarre ketamine-infused drone techno of one-woman act called Unromantic in Montreal what was able to open up the show totally last minute amongst scares of an event cancellation due to extreme weather. In New York at the sold out Elsewhere show, King Vision Ultra opened, deftly alerting everyone’s attention that the night was about to change from chatter over expensive cocktails to captivation via the intense lineup. King Ultra Vision set the tone. Gruesome electronics, naked scream-shout vocals and decidedly lo-fi production, I think hit some New Yorkers upside the head who thought they were in for a nice safe little build up to the headliners, Boy Harsher. Not the case.

Adam from Adult’s kernel of conversational thought about the zeitgeist started to appear in the van as well as I remember it. Rewind to a drive somewhere between Ohio and Illinois. Jae knows I only drive to techno or NPR but puts on Concrete Blonde “Joey” and then Townes Van Sant, whom I’ve never heard in my life. When I announce this fact I get a big, “WHAT,” from Jae who proceeds to play “Colorado Girl” over and over again because she doesn’t know how to use my phone or Spotify.  

Jae’s buttering me up because I’ll learn what she’s leading up to is playing Orville Peck, something of an obsession she’s having at the moment and maybe for a while. Peck quietly released Big Sky in December of 2018 but is finding listeners now it seems with his debut coming out in March, aptly called Pony. Peck, another artist in the canon of current musicians releasing original music at a time that via this tour, I am awakened to. I contemplate the idea behind existing during such a “special time” some more. I think on records released in February alone such as “Stung” by the Los Angeles grown underground techno star Low Tar. During the home stretch of a post 3AM-er in the van we check out Robert Alfons’ unveiling of mysterious new TR/ST singles. I think about Qual’s Cyber Care and the return of Dead Can Dance. I think about Boy Harsher’s new music after the show while everyone is asleep in van, en route to another cold motel bed.

NGHTCRWLR live at El Club in Detroit, MI.
Boy Harsher live at El Club in Detroit, MI.
Matthews and Muller in between destination cities.

 

DETROIT TO CANADA

While Careful decidedly feels cinematic it’s also something of a statement piece from the duo. Themes of lust, night driving, and death crystalize in this new release and perhaps most obviously solidified in the title of the track and record name itself: “Careful” is the maxim. Evident in their collection of new songs, these two take a less abstract and more direct handling of the things that make up the Boy Harsher universe. Be it fact or fiction, stories of desire resulting in panic or narratives of familial hardship that on proclivities to escape yield a work that feels complete and intentional. In other words, Careful feels fully committed to and by Jae and Gus and their mixing team.

Day for Night: Boy Harsher outside of El Club in Detroit, MI.
Boy Harsher soundchecking at El Club in Detroit, MI.

The vision is in widescreen and the production is massive-without feeling overdone or too slick. With Careful the stage version, which includes stand-out tracks “LA,” “Fate,” “Lost,” and “Tears”, Jae and Gus feel truly vulnerable as musicians but also as people. And perhaps this is why so many are drawn to them. They exude honestly and catharsis in songs that are about intensely personal things, but take the vehicle of dance music to get there—to get to their heart and to yours if you’ll let them.

Collapsing infinitely into one another on stage night after night, Jae and Gus bring Careful to life bravely while also giving the audience the intense pleasure of returning to “Suitor,” “Modulations” and “Westerners.” These tracks from Lesser Man, Yr Body Is Nothing and Country Girl are beloved by their fans.

The sound of Boy Harsher found the ears of dedicated listeners during years of tireless touring up and down both US coasts: playing in basements, dive bars, bedrooms and backyards. Now cuts like “A Realness” are given a new life in Boy Harsher’s winter 2019 tour set. Samples have been re-engineered, given a second look, and reintroduced to the dance floor as they were meant to be heard and felt through the body.

Addressing herself and the crowd unabashedly each night as direct support is Kristina Esfandiari. She is: NGHTCRWLR. After years of fronting the lauded King Woman and the fully band-backed Miserable, darling of Sargent House, Esfandiari exercises her autonomy fiercely alone on the floor, in front of stage, as NGHTCRWLR.

The project blends a drug whipped dream that canvases the terminally slowed breakbeat samples from 90’s The Prodigy, imaginative soundscapes, field recordings as well as the artist’s own darkened vocal harmonies that tie it all together. The performance is confrontational. Point blank.

In some ways this is the apex of the artist. Esfandiari has always been a surveyor of highly contrasting sounds. Take her long term project King Woman that while during its most active period helmed doom, stoner and folk metal while her other project Miserable is more personal, taking cues from the best parts of The Stone Roses and The Breeders. NGHTCRWLR is on another planet. I had the chance to ask about where Kristina’s head was at for the design of NGHTCRWLR and she stated that artists as disparate as Dean Blunt to Warren G inspired her as well as visions from the film Belladonna of Sadness, and also brainwash-style Christian cartoons that she was exposed to as a young person contributed to the imaginative live set.

Boy Harsher live at El Club in Detroit, MI.
Boy Harsher live at El Club in Detroit, MI.
NGHTCRWLR live at El Club in Detroit, MI.
Boy Harsher live at El Club in Detroit, MI.
Boy Harsher live at El Club in Detroit, MI.

DRIVING HOME: MONTREAL TO JFK

I am told by other such traversers of the American East Coast that there are twelve such pathways to enter this port and play music in a circle where you’re able to drive effectively to New York City, Chicago, Detroit and somehow come and go from Toronto and Montreal, Canada all the while making time to hit Baltimore, Cleveland and somewhere in Massachusetts or Connecticut.

Apparently being in hyperspace is the only way to achieve this feat: being nowhere and everywhere all at the same exact time.

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