California. What springs to mind? Sunshine. Desert landscapes. Health kicks. Oranges. Apples (computers). Wine. LA. San Francisco. Google. The Pacific. Film stars. Hollywood.
Okay, what doesn't spring to mind? Roadworks. Dead bowling alleys. Receptionists with toupees, black teeth and (possibly related) bad breath. Shopping malls entirely staffed by old people. Branches of Starbucks that vanish from the map. None of that, I expect. Clearly you have never been to Redding, CA.
"It's too far to drive from Seattle to San Francisco in a day," chuckled our tour manager, "so I've booked you into a motel in Redding." We know better than to argue with our tour manager (when he's angry he makes us roomshare on days off) so we accepted this edict and punched the address into the satnav. Just gone 10pm, we rolled into the Redding "metropolitan area". First, the highway exit was inexplicably closed, so we had to drive ten miles out and back again. Then we pulled into the deserted motel car park on a deserted street in a deserted bit of the no-horse town to be greeted by the aforementioned receptionist apparition. "You can't park there," he chewed. "You're too long. You'll get ticketed." By who, the grim reaper? - I felt like asking. Instead, we checked in, adjusted our headgear and strode out to see what the Redding nightlife had to offer. Ten minutes later, we were in the dead bowling alley being served beer by an escaped Coen Brothers character. Approximately six minutes after that, we were in Denny's diner. So much for Thursday night on the town.
So imagine our surprise the following day - after we had failed to find Starbucks, negotiated the path out of the town without hitting a wayward octogenarian driver, hotfooted it to the Bay Area, found our San Franciscan venue and soundchecked - when we saw a Twitter message from a fan telling us "We were only told about your show today! We're driving four hours to see you and we've just heard you're sold out!" And what badly-informed backwater did they hail from? "Redding!" To reward them for being the only residents of the town under sixty, we snuck them in the back door, so to speak.
The San Francisco show was loud, trendy and challenging. The digital sound desk did its traditional pre-show prank of wiping clean all its settings minutes before we took to the stage, giving the first half of the gig the flavour of a soundcheck, but we did okay. The dressing room was about four blocks away so we used the van to hide in afterwards. The short drive back to the hotel was sadly all I got to see of San Francisco, but I did get to drive down some of those crazy hills which flatten abruptly at every cross street, and I think the van's exhaust pipe can be fixed.
It's my fifth time in Los Angeles, and it never gets any closer to my idea of normal. If you haven't been, you really should go. You'll hate it. The second time, you'll love it. The third time, you'll hate it again. And so on. One piece of advice: don't try walking. Anywhere. If you park your car a little far away from where you're going, hire another one to drive to the door. Don't think about hailing a taxi. The taxis ignore everyone. Lord knows how you're actually supposed to use one. And you see that part of town with all the enormous skyscrapers? That's the outskirts of the city. Everything is on its head. It confuses the hell out of me, but I love it.
So, in keeping with these confusing thoughts, we showed up for our gig at the Bootleg Theater, where the first thing that happened was we were offered a beer by a lady from Nottingham. Next we were told that between our soundcheck and our performance, there would be a play. Not another band, but a real play, with actors and shit; and would we mind soundchecking with all the play's scenery left in place? Then we were shown a pleasantly spacious dressing room, we settled in, then were informed that we'd have to move to another, temporary dressing room, behind a curtain in the middle of the bar, and return to the original one just before we went onstage. We had an exhausting thirty-minute debate about where to set up our merch table: in the auditorium itself was for some (still mysterious) reason not allowed, but neither could we set it up in the main bar, because the audience would only be in there for the first fifteen minutes after arrival, after which they'd all be herded into another bar. The solution was simple: the merch stand was put on wheels, so it could move wherever the audience moved. I thought about asking for a small motor so the merch stand could self-perambulate around the room (like those drinks robots in Yo Sushi) but this probably wouldn't have simplified matters.
8pm came and the audience filed in, bought their drinks, stood about chatting, bought a few bits of merch (my wonderful merch helpers for the night Anna and Dave already doing a sterling job at the ol' sales thing), then all the audience were firmly invited by an epically large bouncer to decamp to the second bar. The audience, assessing the epicness of the bouncer, obeyed. I filled Anna and Dave in on the plan. "We'll have to move too, in a minute," I explained, pointing at the merch stand's wheels. I popped my head into the second bar just to check there was somewhere to park the damn thing, only to behold the sight of about four hundred people, crammed into the bar, crowded around the tiny bar-room stage. It only had a couple of mics and a piano on it, but clearly, as far as the audience were concerned, this was the room in which Fink were going to play. The assembled throng were already behaving like they were at a gig, jostling for position, sending their companions to the bar while they held their spot, totally unaware that they were shortly (in about twenty excruciating minutes, as it turned out) to be moved to yet a third room, where finally they could remain until Fin and I skulked on. A pair of baffled girls passed me on their way to the loo. "How can they be playing in this room when there aren't any instruments onstage?" they muttered. I gave serious thought to getting all English, maybe standing on top of a chair, perhaps even clinking a glass with a spoon and announcing in a BBC voice, "Ahem! Terribly sorry, we just thought you ought to know..." etc. But I decided that would plummet the gig even further into student-union-ville. What's a little confusion? At least no-one was bored.
Thankfully, boredom remained on the reserve bench once we took to the proper stage. Apologies to anyone who came to see us in New York, Chicago or any of the Canadian shows, but LA stormed in as our best gig of the tour. The room was big and packed, the sound was thumping and we played an absolute corker, even if I say so myself. We even had a proper dressing room to go to afterwards, meaning we could do a proper "encore" encore: one where we leave the stage and vanish for a moment and then actually come back on, rather than shuffling to the side of the stage, looking a bit awkward and then reassuming our positions, as we did at almost every other show. Call us old-fashioned, but that felt good.
Next day: the final gig. I don't want to take anything away from The Loft in San Diego, but it was mercifully straightforward: here's the stage, there's the merch stand, there's the dressing room - all very nice, friendly and efficient - so there's an awful lot less to say about the evening. Suffice to say the audience were charming, the staff were lovely, the support act (Julia Stine) was new but extremely promising, and it was a superb way to end the tour. I saw even less of San Diego than I did of San Francisco, but if that crowd was anything to go by, we'll be back.
And so, feeling a little sad but thrilled to be on the way home, we trundled back up the highway to Los Angeles, where we dumped the gear and said farewell to our faithful van (still powering along the highways, but definitely making a few noises which suggested it needed a rest). Generally we were charmed and delighted by the reception we received in North America, and we sincerely hope we sent everyone home glad that they'd chosen to spend their evening with Fink, however long they'd driven to get there. And whatever happens, Fin, Rob and I are now part of that insane clutch of people who can honestly say, "I've driven across America." It's a bloody big country. As Simon and Garfunkel once sang, "Michigan seems like a dream to me now." Well, it does. A dream with bad border guards. And bed bugs. Never forget the bed bugs.