Kristian Niemann, guitarist of the epic doom metal band Sorcerer, is thrilled that the band is about to release their third album, Lamenting of the Innocent, on May 29th via Metal Blade Records. He graciously agreed to an interview with him to talk about the new album, and so I video-chatted with Kristian from his home in Stockholm, Sweden.
Sorcerer was formed in Sweden in 1988, however disbanded shortly afterwards in 1992 after recording a few demos. Then in 2010, Johnny Hagel (bass) was asked to perform a set at Hammer of Doom in Germany. Enter Kristian Niemann.
“John said he’d check if he could find some guys, because it had been a long time since they went their way. He had kept up with Anders [Engberg, vocals], and then they asked a couple of us to do it, to fill out the formation, so we just did a couple festivals and then we decided we should probably decide to make an album. We had such a good time playing together and great chemistry, and here we are. We’ve had a couple lineup changes but yeah, this is the third album in five years now,” says Niemann. He describes the band’s sound as “slow, groovy, melodic, heavy metal with big choruses and a lot of hooks.”
Niemann, best known prior to Sorcerer as a member of the bands Therion and Demonoid, is no slouch on the guitar. He credits his dad showing him a live video of Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” as the inspiration to pick up the instrument in 1985.
“When I saw that video, I was like, holy cow! That was the catalyst; That was the moment where I was like, shit man, I need to play!” He hasn’t stopped since. Following a two year stint in Los Angeles to study jazz guitar, he returned home to Sweden and joined Therion shortly thereafter.
Now in Sorcerer, Niemann is ready to bring their music worldwide with the release of their upcoming album, Lamenting of the Innocent. He is joined on guitars with Peter Hallgren, with new additions to the lineup Justin Biggs (bass) and Richard Evensand (drums) rounding out the outfit. The lead single from the album, “Hammer of Witches,” is available now. Niemann describes the song as the “fastest and most direct song on the album, very easy to get into,” but he does point out that it’s “not very representative of the album as a whole,” as they wanted to continue expanding upon their sound and adding more elements to Lamenting of the Innocent. “There’s more of everything; more layered guitar, more keyboards, the drums are a bit bigger,” he says, “We have some growling on this album for the first time as well, so that’s another new thing. More is more, as the English say [laughs].”
Lamenting of the Innocent was almost entirely self-produced, which Sorcerer has done for all of their albums. The band knows what they like, Kristian affirms, and they are confident they can deliver an album that will sound good. “I think it’s because we’re all old guys now [laughs]…we had a lot of experience with and without producers, and these days, you can do so much at home.”
Kristian and Peter both write their song parts separately and do extensive demoing, then send them off to Anders for vocal mixing. “For the most part, my songs are my songs and Peter’s are Peter’s”, he says, “for the next record, we are actually hoping to write songs together more, especially with Peter and I. That would be fun, we want to try that.” After sending a demo off to Anders, Anders adds vocal melodies and rearranges the song structure. It’s a balancing act between everyone involved to figure out how to best make the song shine.
Niemann is especially proud of the title track on Lamenting of the Innocent. It was one of the first songs written for the album and when the song came together, it was a promising sign. Hoping to ride the wave of the critical success of their previous album, The Crowning of the Fire King, Niemann was pleased that they managed to produce something so dynamic in the early stages of writing. “The chorus was just so epic,” he told me excitedly. “When I first heard it, I was like, ‘Holy shit, if that’s the level we can produce right now, this will be a good record.’ I knew we were in good shape. That’s a special one.”
Sorcerer were supposed to have a short tour run in Germany that started on May 29th, the day the album is set to be released, but with the present global pandemic, all tour dates are currently postponed. The band will instead seek to do some playthroughs of the album on Youtube, as well as videos interacting with fans or seeing the band in rehearsals until the all clear. “We’re just taking it day by day,” Niemann states.
When I asked Kristian what some of his proudest career moments were, he was quick to list several moments with a big grin on his face. In his previous band, Therion, they had played at Wacken in front of 60,000 people. They also once performed the Russian national anthem to a large crowd in Moscow. Those moments definitely resonated with Kristian. However, he considers Sorcerer getting signed to Metal Blade Records and the fan interactions he’s had over the years as the things that make him the proudest. “We didn’t think it [getting signed] would happen when we recorded our first album, and then we got hooked up with Metal Blade, and that was just amazing, because that’s a legendary label.”
With just a few weeks to go until the release of Lamenting of the Innocent, Kristian is eager for people to finally hear the band’s hard work. “Everyone’s really excited and trying to do their thing to push the band forward, we’re really trying to get some momentum going with the band…we have some great chemistry in the band, and that really helps, too.”
I had one final question for Kristian to finish the interview: What inspires him? His answer was simple, and the best one I could have asked for.
“Just a profound love of music. It’s the last thing I think about at night and it’s the first thing I think about when I wake up.”
Robbie: Vienna was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe that we visited while on tour with our previous band. When I got home, I did some research on the city and saw the term “Red Vienna” which was an effort in order to rectify many of the cities social crises. Some great artists and Art Deco architecture came out of this era in the city. It just had a really interesting meaning and the cultural significance seemed to resonate with us as a new band. It had nothing to do with politics, I think it just suited the vibe we were going for.
How would you describe your band’s music for any person who may have never heard Red Vienna before?
Jahmeel: Aspects of it are heavy, but it’s also very melodic and melancholy.
Robbie: The songs also have post-punk and shoegaze elements at times, but don’t necessarily fall into those categories.
What are your musical influences that shape the sound of, Red Vienna?
Jahmeel: The Jesus and Mary Chain, Failure, Killing Joke, Bee Gees, Black Sabbath, and Fugazi, are all groups I would say have had a direct influence in some way on our songs.
Devin: Interpol, Radiohead, The War On Drugs, The Stone Roses, Slowdive, and Wild Nothing come to mind.
Your new EP, Tomhet, is about to be released later this week and the two tracks have been released as singles the last few weeks. How has the reception been so far?
Jahmeel: Really great! Seems like we’re reaching more people than ever before and the reactions have been really positive so far.
Robbie: It’s been so great, the receptions to the songs have been so positive. I’ve had people tell me how beautiful, “Evelyn” is… I never saw it in that way as the topic is so dark. It can be a bit nerve racking releasing your music to the world as everyone will have their own opinion on it. All you can do is hope people will enjoy it, and that has been the reaction so far.
The title track, “Tomhet” follows the subject of depression and hopelessness. If you don’t mind me asking, is that a personal subject to write about?
Jahmeel: It was at the time I wrote the lyrics. Happy to say I’m on the other side of that.
Glad to hear you’re on the other side of it. How did the grim, yet haunting Robert Wiles photograph from 1947, titled “The Most Beautiful Suicide,” influence you in writing the song, “Evelyn?”
Jahmeel: I was really struck by the photo when I saw it. It’s a beautiful image even though it’s also a morbid one. There was also the influence of New York itself and the fact that the photo was taken there. It’s such a special city and anytime I can put my thoughts there in a song I find it really inspiring. “The Dead Lines” off our album, The Book of Hours, also touches upon similar subject matter.
Are these songs just a taste of what’s yet to come in future releases? Do you happen to have any more music ready for the near future, considering Tomhet was only a two song release?
Robbie: We do hope to record new material in the near future. We currently don’t have any tour plans so for us, it makes more sense to release a song or two at a time.
With Tomhet being of a darker subject matter, is there any positives you want people to take away from the EP?
Jahmeel: That you’re not alone. I think most people experience the type of feelings I touch upon here. There’s a light up ahead.
What’s currently planned for Red Vienna for the remainder of 2020?
Jahmeel: With the current situation in the world, the immediate plan is to work on more material at home. Hopefully we can continue to reach more people with these new songs and videos as well.
Thanks for the time. With everything going on around the entire world right now, I hope you’re staying safe. Is there anything else you may want to add?
Jahmeel: Thank you for the interview. I’d like to send our thanks to everyone who’s checked out the new songs and shown their support online. We greatly appreciate it. Stay safe out there.
Robbie: I would like to thank all the fans out there and that we very much appreciate the support. Wishing you all good health and to stay as positive as possible. We have to get through this together.
So, you guys [Saint Asonia] just released Flawed Design, which is awesome. You also just announced you’re doing the headlining Ontario shows with The Standstills before going out on tour later this year. What made you choose The Standstills?
They’re friends of ours. We’ve played a few shows with them in the past. Last year I did a Canadian Music Week thing at The Horseshoe in Toronto and they were a part of that. They’re just a great band. They’re super great people and we get along with them really well. When we were booking these shows their name came up and it was pretty easy and great to have them open up these shows, for sure.
You guys just wanted to start off at home before going out to the U.S. I assume?
Yeah, that’s right. I mean we were originally trying to do something a little bit bigger in Canada, at least in Ontario to do a few more shows sort of starting up here, but yeah we have the three shows in Toronto, Ottawa, and Peterborough. We stopped it there and it seemed to be a good few shows to get started, get our feet wet because we haven’t really been out for awhile. It made sense to do all that at home too, to keep it a little bit easier with friends and crew, yeah.
In May you’re going out with Black Stone Cherry and Alterbridge. That should be a really kick ass tour.
Yeah, that’s going to be great, man. We are really looking forward to that. Alterbridge is awesome, Black Stone is awesome as well. I mean, we’ve done a lot of tours with them. I’ve done a lot of tours with them in the past. Yeah, really, really good bands. It’s going to be a great tour. We’re stoked for that.
Apart from the new album, you guys also have some new members. How does it feel finally having Cale in the same band?
It feels great man. I mean it’s been along time coming. You know we grew up together and we played music together growing up. Our plan was always to be in a band together or something like that. It just made sense, you know. At the same time our original bass player, Corey, started working with Seether full time, so it just kinda made sense. I asked Cale if he wanted to be a part of it. Yeah, it was a no brainer all away around, you know, and made really good sense. It feels great now that we’re actually doing it. It’s been a great time so far and looking forward to touring together, for sure.
Did you guys get Cody through Cale, or how did that work out?
Yeah, I mean Cody plays drums in Art of Dying, you know. Cody and him are band mates in that band and aside from that we’ve been really good friends with Cody, he’s from our hometown of Norwood in Peterborough. We’ve known him for years and years and Art of Dying isn’t, at this point, doing all that much. All the guys are doing separate things. So yeah, with Sal from Staind being our drummer, there were some conflicting tour dates and that sort of thing. It just made sense for us to get Cody to jump in full time because Sal has a lot on his plate.
Cody hasn’t done any live shows with Saint Asonia yet, correct?
That’s right, yeah. We did do an acoustic thing in Massachusetts in Foxborough a couple months ago, but that’s just about it.
So it will be awesome getting you out on the road with you guys then.
Yeah, oh yeah, for sure.
Is there a song off Flawed Design that you’re looking forward to playing live?
I mean we’re kinda working our set out right now for these Ontario shows. They’re headlining sets so they’re pretty long. We’ve been trying to figure out what songs from the new record we want to play. I mean one song we’re all excited to play live eventually is “Ghost.” A lot of us feel like it’s our favourite one to play. Once we get some sort of steady, long headlining sets, we’ll probably put “Ghost” in there.
“Ghost” is one of my favourites off the album. You wrote with Dustin Bates from Starset on that one, right?
For sure! Yeah, Dustin and Keith Wallen from Breaking Benjamin.
Oh, Keith wrote on “Ghost” as well?
That’s right, yeah. He wrote on “Ghost” as well as on “Beast.”
I think Keith Wallen is one of the underrated songwriters out there, so I’m glad he was able to be featured on Flawed Design. How did that collaboration come about?
You know, same type of deal. We know Keith really well because of Breaking Benjamin and that sort of thing. When we were putting songs together for this record, writing songs, we wanted to branch out and co-write with different guys and there was just a handful of guys names that came up and Keith was one of them. A lot of the time you get messages from different guys saying “Hey, it would be great to sit down and write some tunes together,” and it’s not all the time you are able to follow up on that. I think I got a message from Keith to co-write, that was pretty much it when we started writing the record. We flew out to L.A. where he was and sat down in the studio and wrote a couple of tunes.
I’m really glad that collaboration worked out. “Ghost” and “This August Day” are probably my two favourite songs off the album.
Thanks man. Yeah, “This August Day” is a really fun one to play too. It’s a bit of a different vibe for it and that’s what we were trying to basically accomplish, you know by writing with others like Dustin.
Was there anybody you wanted to work with that maybe the timing didn’t work out or just really didn’t end up coming of it?
You know what, not really. I mean there was a handful of guys I really wanted to write with and fortunately I was lucky enough that I was able to write with them. I sat down and wrote a song with Raine Maida from Our Lady Peace and I’ve always been a big Our Lady Peace fan. So that was really cool and you know, it was really fortunate to be able to co-write with guys like that and be able to reach out and make something happen. So we wrote a song, it’s actually not on this record, but we’ll end up using it for something down the road.
I’m really looking forward to hearing that song with Raine. “The Hunted” with Sully Erna of Godsmack had quite awhile to get released, so I’m sure this one will be great as well.
Yeah, that was awesome. I mean that song has been around for a long time and we kinda tweaked it, that sorta thing with a new producer. Yeah, really cool to have Sully on the album.
After your done your tour with Alterbridge and Black Stone Cherry, Staind is going to be on tour in the Summer with Disturbed. Should we expect a big Saint Asonia tour in the fall?
The plan is to go out, actually we’re announcing a big tour tomorrow [March 3, 2020], so yeah we’re pretty close to announcing that and that’s gonna put us out for July, August, and September as well for three months. Yeah, that’s going to be great. Staind is going to be out with Disturbed, that’s right. So I think when Mike goes out with Staind we will have somebody basically fill in for him. We’ve always pretty much assumed at some point he was going to go back out. Mike and I have had lots of talks about that. It’s great to see him going back out and I’m glad he’s doing that kinda thing, but he’s always a part of this band, for sure.
There’s a couple of festivals coming up this Summer like Sonic Temple and Rock Fest in Cadot. Would Mike be doing double duty on those sets or would you still perform with a touring guitarist?
I think we will have our other guy filling in for him, but at the same time we have talked about having Mike come up to do a couple here and there. Playing on the same day, you know [Laughs], it will be a little bit tough for him. Those days are going to be long as he puts a lot into that set, but yeah, he will get up with us, for sure.
It was a real pleasure talking to you Adam! I look forward to seeing you guys on tour later this Summer and I hope you have a great year!
When you step on tour with Justin Osborne, Jordan Igoe, and Van ‘The Good’ Robinson, the road seems endless from the outset. Times are good at every stop and it feels as though there’s a full moon hanging over every city you pull in to.
Then one morning you wake up in Macon, Georgia, and the ride has ended. The crew disbands and this old train is set down to rest for some time to come.
These thoughts swarmed me as I leaned over the railing of the Royal American patio with half a cigarette. I stared past the tracks out back, into the darkness beyond the reach of the moonlight until my focus was broken by an Indian bike being kicked into a growling start in the parking lot behind me.
I didn’t know anyone there other than Van the Good, so I’ve stepped outside for a cigarette every 10 or so minutes. Van and I split a small bit of LSD and I watched the stars come out as I waited to feel the effects.
By 1:30 neither of us felt anything, so we took a bit more. I had initially blamed my continual missteps on the drug as I walked around the bar, though it’s worth noting I had smoked a pack of cigarettes in four hours which will make your feet feel heavier and your fingertips grow cold.
Van and I hopped into his van and took off through the night toward a recording studio for a party after we watched a couple bands play at the Royal. The studio felt like some indistinct and indefinable piece of home you’ve never stepped foot in; familiar in an unfamiliar way.
I wandered around briefly before settling into a spot on the couch and melting into the cushions. Not melting all the way into nothing, but enough to keep me planted there for the next few hours. I thought this damned acid is about as strong as a right hook from my grandmother and before I knew it, I was swept away and tangled up in the cosmic wavelengths that danced inside my eyes.
Most of the night crawled by but 3AM came out of nowhere. “Electric Feel” by MGMT came on only to be cut short as the room began to ride the waves of the tune. “Oh, come on!” one person yelled at the DJ through the studio window. “Why. Why. Why?” he hollered with greater desperation, only to be answered by the next song.
I felt gentle waves coming and going. When they came, I felt lost in the drug, but unafraid. When they went, I thought about how none of what I just experienced will be even remotely replicated at home. The more I thought about tour, the less I wanted to leave. But even if I stayed, it will never be what it was. Just as I began sinking into this thought, I felt a gentle stirring in my stomach and my lips felt as though they had each blossomed open.
Just as I began sinking back into the drug, someone I met at the bar asked if I’m alright. I told him “I feel great,” which I think may have been the truth. I don’t know if he believed me, but the uncertainty stirring within me could be due to the acid. I can’t help wondering what kind of madman I must look like as I sit here, staring around the party at things that are only taking place within the parameters of my mind.
I stood up and wandered over to a group of people, looking to shed this aura of insanity. I struck up a conversation with a young, long haired guy wearing a jean jacket. There’s no point recalling most of the conversation, but we laughed and joked a short while before he leaned in close to say something.
“Do you fuck around with coke?” he asked in a hushed tone.
I thought about it for a moment, and then another.
“Eeh,” I said, “I think I’d probably ruin my life if I did coke, so I probably shouldn’t.”
He looked almost surprised. “Good on you,” he said, raising his beer.
I told him about the ride I was on that night and as we carried on talking, I felt another, heavier, wave hit the shores of my mind. As I felt it, I looked over at Van the Good as he sat down in a chair, running both hands through his hair as he felt the same wave strike the levees of his consciousness. The intensity of the LSD’s effects can’t quite be measured without taking into account a brief sleep,a pack of cigarettes and not nearly enough weed. It’s a delicate ecosystem, once you understand the nuances.
A few days later I was talking to someone about their experiences with LSD. He told me he tends to micro-dose the stuff on a weekly basis. He said the drug plays a valuable role in the way he interacts with the world. “It opens my heart and it opens my tongue.”
I sat back on the couch and watched a girl walk out of the room with the white lines. She wiped her nose with the base of her palm before she plunked down on the couch and began flipping through a colouring book filled with birds. I held no judgement toward her. After all, I’m the fiend tripping on the couch watching her. Which one of us is in a truer state of disrepair?
Just then the front door opened, and 5’10” of what I expected most people in South Carolina to look like walked in with the December breeze. I made it to the door before it shut and slipped out into the darkness.
The most bizarre thing happens when you step outside the thumping bass of music and the roar of talking and singing in this place. At first you won’t even trust the fact there’s cement appearing in the growing crack of the door. As it catches on the latch behind you, you’re submerged in absolute silence. There’s hardly a recollection of the music, the people, any of it.
“It’s something else, isn’t it?” a gentle giant standing outside said to me as I breathed the night sky. “The air is crisp, like biting into a fresh apple.”
Stars glowed endlessly around us as we each looked off into the darkness.
“I never want to be my own uncle,” I heard someone sitting on the cement ledge say between drags of a cigarette.
“I don’t want you to be like me,” the fellow next to him replied.
“Yeah, you’re my uncle,” the first man answered, shaking his head.
Van and I came back to Rialto Row for the night. We each felt another wave come on as we looked around the room at the mural painted along the walls, the art all around us. Van left to go trip in his van and listen to Ever Since I Lost my Mind. I spent much of the early morning laying on the couch, muttering sleep deprived nothings into an audio recorder.
The effect of the drug faded, and as the sun began to rise, I grabbed a bicycle I’d seen in the backyard and went riding around the quiet streets of Charleston on that calm, warm, Sunday morning. The morning birds flew through the sunlight, singing the city awake.
The neighborhoods I peddled around were silent and serene. Riding a bicycle around Charleston, South Carolina is how every acid trip should end. For mostly logistical reasons, that’s not quite possible.
I got lost for an hour or two before I found my way back to the compound. I slept that whole day on the couch in the Rialto Row house, only ever waking long enough to croak “whatsup” when people came walking through. I awoke long enough to give Van the Good a hug goodbye before he climbed into his van and drove home to Columbia.
I came back to life that evening and walked 45 minutes to downtown Charleston. I sat at Starbucks and rode their WiFi long enough to do a final edit and post a piece I’d written over the few days prior. While I walked back to Rialto, through the dark, night fallen streets, the end of the trip weighed heavier on me than it had at any other point.
Justin picked me up the next morning to take me to lunch at a place that cooks BBQ just like his hometown. We passed around The Gift Bowl before we left and, after we ate, he gave me a driving tour of Charleston.
“Some Swedish guy sent me this mix CD he burned,” Justin said while we drove around Charleston. “He put Hard Drugs on it. It’s just funny to listen to some 70-year-old Swedish guys’ mix. It’s called Hit the Hay, Vol. 10.”
When “Hard Drugs” came on, he skipped it and told me a little about it. The most he had to say about it on stage was, “This song is about how sometimes going through the worst shit can bring you closer to people. It’s also about how fucked up it can be to go to the hospital when you don’t have health insurance.”
“My friend started datin’ this guy right around the time I got back from a trip with Meghan. We were real good friends, too. She was at my wedding. That dude was super possessive of her, and I felt like I was losing one of my best friends to this terrible relationship. She eventually got out of that relationship which was super good because he was a major shithead. He wasn’t even a shithead, he was just an asshole.”
As he finished the story, we pulled onto the grounds of The Citadel.
“When I first moved to Charleston, I got off the interstate and came straight to The Citadel. I’d never been to Charleston before I started going to this military school. Because of that, for a while, I didn’t even like Charleston. Eventually I realized how awesome it is.”
We drove deeper onto the property.
“Alright, here it is, dude. The Citadel. This fuckin’ place. If you’re a freshman, you have to shave your head and walk in the gutters. This was my introduction to Charleston.”
“Sterile,” I said, looking at the pale grey walls of every building.
“Oh yeah,” he said, staring at it. “Super sterile. Kinda fun though. But eventually, also just a huge pain in the ass. They have all kinds of obstacle courses n’ shit back there. Oh shit, the road’s blocked. Oh well, that’s good. It cuts our Citadel tour down a good bit, anyway.”
The old Swede’s mixtape carried on with a light rock jam with a gentle piano solo.
“You guys got some cool ass trees,” I told him as we drove through an old part of town. “I was bikin’ around while I came down on acid, lookin’ at the trees, having my mind blown by ‘em.”
“You were bikin’ around on acid?” he asked, excited. “Dude, that’s the thing to do around here! That’s what the ACID BOYS is all about. We’d each take acid and as soon as you’d start to feel it, we’d be like, let’s get outta here! We felt like this crazy sort of warrior troupe. We weren’t brawling at all, but we’d go downtown and look all the tourists in the eyes n’ shit. We’d wear crazy shit and stare people in wedding parties in the eyes. We were doing it just to kick back and we accidentally expanded our minds in the process. We’d do this thing called the Ron Paul No Hands where you stand up on your bike and just throw your hands up while you go.”
He threw his hands in the air, off the steering wheel, to give me the full effect. It was only minutes later we came to a slow stop on a quiet residential street.
“Alright, here she is,” Justin said as he threw the van in park.
“Panther’s flag in the window,” I said to myself as we walked up to the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame. A lot of the stories Justin told from on stage about the early days of SUSTO took place in this building, or, at the very least, while he lived here. To some SUSTO fans this place is a Holy artifact.
Justin knocked at the door, but no one answered. We walked into the backyard and up the balcony. Still no answer at the doors. Justin climbed out on the edge of the balcony, 25, maybe 30 feet off the ground, to get to one of the doors on the second floor.
“Meghan would kill me if she saw me doing this,” he said as he climbed back, taking a nervous peek down as he did. “You know that song that starts “Ashley’s smokin’ a bong?” I wrote it out here on this balcony while I was livin’ here.”
After a few more minutes, we gave up on entering the building. The members of SUSTO were waiting on Justin at Rialto Row for the first full band practice since recording Ever Since I Lost My Mind. He gave me his phone while he drove and had me send a text to the group chat to say he’d be late.
We drove across a long white bridge, toward the coastline. Justin pointed through the passenger window and said, “there’s an old bylaw in Charleston that you can’t build higher than the churches.”
I looked over to where he pointed, at the city of Charleston, at a dozen or more church spires peeking overtop every building in sight.
We stopped at the end of a quiet road and walked down toward the water. He pointed off in the direction of the secret spot on the beach he and his friends like best. We walked down the beach, past the million-dollar real estate, to the ocean’s edge. We each stared off into the apparent infinity between us and the other side.
“Put your hands in it,” he said as he knelt to rinse his hands as we stood in a half inch of water.
He walked out further and I followed his lead. All of a sudden, like something from an old sailor’s tale, the ocean came back our way ferocious and deep and before I knew it I was up to my ankles in water. We ran back up the sand as fast as our soaked shoes would let us.
“Aah!” Justin yelled, laughing as we walked back up the beach. “Sorry, dude. I was too stoned, and I just kept walking into it.”
We drove to Rialto Row and met up with James and the rest of SUSTO. My shoes were sopping wet with ocean water, so James offered to dry them for me before I left. We each smoked a bit of weed and hit the road.
“Alright,” he said in his gruff voice, with an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips, “we will do this quickly and efficiently. That is the name of my game. Don’t you worry about shit.”
He said this all with his typical straight, matter of fact, tone of voice.
“Canuck, before you go, I’m gonna help hit you with some OutKast that’ll blow your mind” he said, again, straight and matter of fact. “Welcome to your OutKast Education.”
“West Savannah” came on, and we drove down the street.
We went by James’ house where he pulled my shoes apart and threw them in the dryer, offering me a pair of slippers in exchange. As we got back in the car, OutKast still playing, he told me “I suspect you’re going to go through a good bit of post-tour-depression-type-shit once you’re back home.”
I laughed and agreed with him before I thought about it a moment longer and fell silent under the music.
“I’m gonna take you to see something that’ll really make ya think,” he said as he turned the stereo off.
He took me to a civil war cemetery. It was large, seemingly endless. He showed me the graves of the men from the first successful submarine strike. He took me down roads I wasn’t sure anyone was meant to drive down, past countless tombstones. Brothers, fathers, friends. We drove in silence for some time past those great fields of tombstones.
“Before we go, let me show you the biggest asshole who has ever lived,” he said as we carried on down a small dirt road. “His name is MaClinsky. The, and I mean the, biggest asshole in the history of the world.”
We pulled up to a Mausoleum, the biggest tomb site in the cemetery. The name didn’t say MaClinsky, but that wasn’t the point.
“A regular grave wasn’t good enough?” James said, looking from me to the building that likely cost upwards of a few hundred thousand dollars. “You’re just as dead as the rest of ‘em,” he said, staring at the building as we slowly pulled away.
Once we left the cemetery, the OutKast Education resumed.
We pulled up outside Rialto Row and waited until the band finished running through “Last Century” before we went in and I grabbed my bag.
“What a tour,” Justin said, smiling.
“Unbelievable,” was all I could say.
I gave him a hug, said goodbye to James and the band and headed out to catch my Uber.
I arrived at the airport around 3:15 and was still somewhat stoned. The weed made me forget a few things in security but I slid through without any real problems.
Once I found my seat I closed my eyes and drifted off, thinking about everything that had been the last two weeks. I woke up at a bump and expected to be in the back seat of the van, staring out the window at some stretch of Southern somewhere. Instead, I was in seat 14D, staring out at the snowy Chicago runway.
When I arrived at the airport in Winnipeg, I was depleted. My clothes stunk and I looked as though I’d been up to no good for a couple weeks. The middle-aged woman at the security desk looked me over for a half a moment longer than everyone else before she sent me off for additional screening.
This is it, I thought to myself. This is where the party ends and the trip takes a turn for the worse. This is where all those beautifully captured memories become thoroughly documented evidence.
The security agent pulled everything out of my bag, asking me about what I had been down south for, who I was with.
“Did the band you were with do any drugs while you were with them?” he asked, not looking at me but instead at the contents of my backpack as he dragged them out.
“They smoked a little bit of pot,” I said with a shrug. “You know, just hippie stuff like that.”
“Did you consume any marijuana while you were there?” he asked, looking now at me.
“I wasn’t there for that,” I said, looking back at him. “I was just there to write about what it was like being there.”
On the inside pocket of my coat my notebook felt heavy. Every answer he was looking for was inside it. He didn’t ask me to empty my pockets, so I didn’t, and he never saw the notebook or the stories it held.
My birthday came a few days after I was home. I hit the bong for breakfast along with a half cup of coffee, the other half of which I misplaced. My phone dinged with a text from John Roberts, Psychedelic Aficionado. He wished me a happy belated birthday that rattled my mind: How did he know my birthdate? Is he a Witch Doctor? Did he read the contents of my soul while I was under?
Before these stoner theories could gather a real foothold, I saw the picture of me Justin had posted on Instagram.
“This is Matt Harrison,” the caption read. “Matt is a writer who I met last year in Winnipeg. He rode along with us on the last half of the Stories Tour, writing, seeing the country, and meeting tons of people. Yesterday was his 24th birthday. Proud to call him my friend, and excited for what’s to come in his career.”
I smiled when I saw it, still not believing this was anything more than just a dream.
I had three weeks until school started from the day I got home, and I spent all 21 days getting high and writing while I listened to the unreleased SUSTO album, Ever Since I Lost My Mind, and Aquemini by OutKast. What I sought to somehow recapture was the feeling of being on tour. While I was still on tour I clung desperately to those final moments. The weeks after I came home, I hung on even tighter, though there was nothing left for me to hold on to.
It would be months before I fully came back to reality. It was three months before I could look back with absolute certainty that the tour had really happened. Looking back now, I no longer feel a desperate want to be back out there. What I feel instead is gratitude for ever getting to go, and a burning desire to run some other unseen roads.
As I write this, SUSTO is off finding new ears in old cities as they tour through Europe. Once they’re Stateside, they’ll be hitting familiar roads until the end of the year. For Justin, life on tour is an unending voyage. Night after night, when the lights go dim, he’ll step onto another stage to tell his story through music. Once the fans clear out and the amps are left humming a static emptiness, he’ll be back on the road in search of the next empty stage and the next waiting crowd.
Dedicated to the memory of Andrew ‘Toucan’ Gardner.
“I brought some energy weed,” James said as he walked through the front door of the house on the Rialto Row compound. One lesson I’ve learned with absolute certainty is that the rock and roll world is a feisty bull to hang on to, so you may as well get stoned and do your best to keep at it.
Van the Good and James both arrived at Rialto early to sort out the plan for the day before we left for Georgia for the last show of the tour.
“I just need to pick up a bag of ice, a 12 pack of Budweiser, and a pack of Camel Lights,” James said as he hauled his ACID BOYS cooler into the van.
The three of us had some time to kill, so we headed over to James’ house to chill out and say hi to Luda, James’ dog who acts as the mascot of Rialto Row.
“You see these speakers here?” James said as we came into his house. “They were custom made for Eddie Vedder and they were the main speakers for the jam room in his house. Ben [Bridwell] won them from him on a bet when they were on tour, so they were his for years. Band of Horses got a sponsor that hooked their house up, so I go these.”
“Can you play something?” I asked.
“Sure,” he shrugged, pulling his phone out. “This is what we stumbled in on last night.”
He played a smooth, groovy, jam. It sounded incomplete, and that’s because it was. The truest version of the song momentarily peeked through the psychedelic shadows of the music. James played a few Band of Horses songs to show off the aptitude of what were once Eddie Vedder’s speakers.
“It’s crazy how these guys are my best friends, right? I would love these dudes if they were, I don’t know, landscapers, if they were whatever the fuck. The fact that they’re making this great music is wonderful and I’m just lucky to be here.”
“It’s fucking crazy to me that these sounds that are made in Rialto, a place that we built, are gonna be heard all over the goddamn world. That is fucked up! And, who knows man, maybe this shit’s gonna cheer people up in Japan and Australia meanwhile Ben recorded the vocals in my shitass bathroom!”
He paused for a moment, looking around his living room with a Budweiser in his hand. “That’s insane, brother, straight up.”
“That’s the American Dream,” I said from the back porch where I smoked a cigarette with Luda.
“Hey, man, they’ve also helped SUSTO out a lot. Band of Horses has taken SUSTO across the country, to Europe. Ben gave Justin a guitar for his birthday one year and Justin goes shit, man! You just tripled my net worth!”
Once we rolled out, we picked up Igoe and Justin before pulling up at the storage facility to pick up the merch bins. The string hanging from the light in the unit took three pulls to turn on. We filled a wide cart with only what we needed for the one show and loaded up the van.
“Esta bien,” Van the Good said from the driver seat once everything was loaded in. “Everybody, take your vitamins.”
We swung through Chick-Fil-A for brunch before being Georgia bound. We were still in the drive-thru, waiting on the rest of our food, when Justin started coughing and choking on his drink.
“I’ve never felt like that in my life,” he said, heaving with every breath, his eyes red and watering. “I felt like I was drowning.”
“You just really wanted that fuckin’ drink,” Igoe said, almost impressed.
“Can you ask for extra napkins? I look like a child,” Justin said.
“You are a child, bud,” Igoe replied.
“I’ve never seen anybody that mean on sweet tea before,” James said in his rough, Georgia tone from the middle row of seats.
“Unsweetened tea,” Justin corrected him, eyes still watering.
“I bet now you have PTSTea,” James said before laughing hard at his own joke. “That was pretty good.”
“He’s still chokin,’ bud,” Igoe said, looking over at James.
“That was the funniest thing I’ve ever said, and nobody laughed,” James said, offended.
“I laughed,” Igoe and I both added.
“Justin probably woulda laughed if he wasn’t chokin’,” Igoe said.
Once we were squared away, we hit the highway and were off toward Georgia. Deep green bushes and towering trees skirted the highway behind a layer of low, heavy fog.
“You’re ruining this beautiful scenery with this ok-ass, bullshit music” James said from the middle row. “Put on Z by My Morning Jacket. Have you heard My Morning Jacket?” he asked, looking back at me.
I shook my head to say no.
“Oh, Canuck. Buckle up,” is all he said with wide eyes before taking a long sip of Budweiser.
We put the album on and passed The Gift Bowl around.
We vibed to the album while countless miles fell away behind us. James looked back over the seat and said, “This is that Low Country, dawg. This is all marsh and rivers.”
He looked up front as Justin drove, eating his chicken nuggets.
“Justin, your nugget-driving form is spectacular. I’ve got a buddy who weighs 400 or so pounds. He bet me one time that he could eat 100 nuggets in an hour. He ended up eating 66 in 23 minutes.”
“Then what? Did he die, or what?” Justin said into the rearview mirror.
“I don’t know, man,” James said, looking out the window at the South Carolina countryside. “He got real sick after that.”
When James starts telling a story, he gets the attention of anyone in earshot. What makes him such a good storyteller is his poetic tendency with words coupled with the fact most of his stories involve some light-hearted debauchery. He sat up straight before he spoke again.
“Do y’all remember when we were all at The Space doing & I’m Fine Today and I came in all excited. You’re like whatsup? And I’m like, ‘dawg, Lenny Kravitz just split his pants and…’” he stopped mid-sentence and looked back at me. “Did you see Lenny Kravitz’s dick? Do you know about this?”
“Yeah,” I said, laughing.
“That was the greatest day of my fucking life,” he said with a methodical cadence. “The fact that he had a cock-ring, leather pants, mid solo. Ah,” he said, leaning back and bringing his Budweiser up for a sip, “ya can’t beat that.”
More miles of endless forest and lowland swamp soared by us as I passed The Gift Bowl up to James. He flicked his Zippo open in a particular, spinning way before he sparked it. Igoe was mesmerized as he did it. She asked if he’d teach it to her, so he slowed the motion down for her to see.
“It’ll take you a minute and then it’ll get real natural,” he said.
“It’s gonna take more than a minute, bud. I don’t understand the physics. There’s gotta be another variable,” she said, continuing to spin and drop the lighter. Spin and drop, spin and drop.
“Ain’t it pretty around here?” James said, passing The Gift Bowl back to me, forgetting about the sound of Igoe dropping the lighter over and over.
“Gorgeous,” I said. He only nodded and smiled.
“Willin’” by Little Feat came on in the van as a part of Justin’s driving playlist.
“Is there another variable?” Igoe asked, her frustration growing.
“No, no,” James answered, showing her the trick another couple of times. “It just takes practice.”
“Show me again, fucker,” Igoe said, and he did.
“Oh shiit!” James yelled, getting the attention of the vehicle with his celebration as Igoe nailed the lighter trick. “Hell yeah, that was awesome!”
“I got it!” Igoe yelled back at him.
The two high fived and James’ excitement grew every time he saw her do it again, and again.
“Hell yeah,” James said between sips of Budweiser. “Lemme see it again, lemme see it again!”
The sound of the Zippo spinning open over and over was broken by James’ voice, calmer than usual.
“Hey, Justin, I just taught Igoe how to open a Zippo like a boss. It’s pretty valuable for your rock aesthetic. Soon, when y’all are rockin’ crowds, Igoe’s gonna need to have a cigarette and it’s gonna be a whole thing. My point is, I think we’ve earned a cigarette. We’ve been putting in work back here and we’ve learned how to open a lighter like a badass.”
“That’s so ridiculous,” Igoe said. She laughed and continued to spin the Zippo open over and over.
“It’s the truth,” James said defensively, his voice breaking on the word truth.
Justin gave the idea a moment of thought and looked in the rearview mirror to say, “I’ll give you guys a cigarette break in half an hour.”
“That’s great,” James said, raising both hands in the air, still holding a Budweiser in his left. “Thank you so much for your kindness.”
“I’ll probably have to pee in half an hour,” Igoe confessed.
“Exactly,” Justin said, keeping his eyes on the road. “You’ll have your cigarette then.”
“Oh, well, that’s not exactly a gift,” James said, making sense of the situation.
“Exactly. I’m saying you can have your cigarette, but it’ll be at a routine stop. I can’t watch her do that while I’m driving so I can’t verify the coolness of the trick. It doesn’t feel right to grant you a cigarette break for it.”
James was astonished by this miscarriage of justice. His shoulders raised as he became visibly upset. Finally, he erupted.
“That’s the most bullshit ass, horseshit kinda bullshit rule ever,” he said at last.
Then he broke out in laughter that spread through the van, while Igoe flicked the lighter open, and closed, and open, and closed.
“You’re doing really good over there,” James said to Igoe with a smile.
Justin rolled his window down and took the wheel at top center with his right hand. “Wooo!” he screamed, pumping his left fist out the window. “Window’s all the way down, baby! Wooo! Tour or die!”
“Whew. This is gonna be one of the best cigarette’s I’ve ever had, y’all,” James said at the next rest stop.
Justin jumped into the passenger seat, cracked a beer and rolled a joint as Van took over to drive the rest of the way to Macon. The sun had only just struck the horizon when we checked in to the hotel and it was dark when we arrived at the venue for the show.
As we drove over, Justin sat in the middle row of seats. By now he’d had himself a few hits of a joint and he’d put back a few beers. He danced in his seat along with the jams in the van. His seatbelt squeaked each time he bounced in his seat dancing. Once he heard the squeak, he danced in a way that carried a beat with squeak of the seatbelt. Then he danced to the rhythm of the squeaking seatbelt.
That’s the thing about being around a guy like Justin; he emanates music, he breathes it and never seems to ever stop living it. Whether it’s dancing along to a rhythm he just discovered in the world, or making up songs or tag lines, little tunes about anything. Justin is in continual participation with his musical self.
We had all sat down for dinner at the venue when Pete walked in with his guitar and gear box.
“How do you feel about the last show?” I asked him once he’d settled in.
“Happy to still be standing. Excited to get home, but it’s bittersweet, it’s bittersweet,” he said as he took a seat at the table.
“All good things must come to an end,” I uttered in cliché fashion.
“It’s true, man,” he said with a nod.
Justin sat down at the piano on stage for soundcheck.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he said into the mic. “One, two, three. Nothin’ ‘bout nothin. Check, check, check. Hey, hey, hey. Gettin’ me down, nothin’ bout nothin’,” he sang. before jumping in to “Acid Boys” as a warmup.
Igoe showed off her newfound Zippo trick as she stepped on stage. She smiled as she pocketed the lighter before carrying on with soundcheck.
“Alright,” Justin said once warmup finished, “I’m gonna get a shot n’ a beer and go chill in the green room.”
We spent enough time in the green room to get bored before we headed out into the pouring rain and on to the streets of Macon. We walked over to a bar called Grant’s Lounge that is said to have been a major building block in the development of Southern rock, hosting the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty, and the Allman Brothers in the 70s. “Silent Night” played and Christmas lights decorated the streets we ran across to get there. Igoe sung along in a dramatic, operatic voice.
“Is that a good opera voice?” she asked me with a whiskey scented smile.
“It’s great,” I said as we walked into the bassy, rock and roll atmosphere of Grant’s.
“This is fuckin’ cool, man,” I said to Justin with no better words for it.
“This place, it’s legendary, man,” he said as we walked through it. “I’m sure you’ve been told already; this is the place where southern rock was pretty much founded.”
All over the walls are autographs and band names, drawings and otherwise in sharpie, pencil, or whatever was available to write with. The promoter for the show, a southern man named Hubble, handed me a sharpie and said “sign somewhere, man.”
I wandered about, looking for somewhere with enough blank space to write and a memorable enough placement to recall. I saw a corner with just enough space.
“Draw a maple leaf,” Justin said after I signed my name.
“I don’t really know how. You try,” I said. I handed him the sharpie.
He knelt down and drew his best maple leaf, writing “Canada rulez” underneath it. We slipped away from the music, into the back area where the pool tables were hidden.
“Corner pocket,” Justin said, leaning into his shot.
“Woo! Cah caw! Cah caw!” James said, pumping a fist in the air with one hand and cradling a Budweiser in the other. “That’s my dawg. I did not have any faith in you on that shot.”
“What can I say,” Justin shrugged, “I’m a closer.”
“I’m more of a middle reliever,” Hubble admitted.
On the next shot Justin sank the 8 ball and it was time to head back to the venue.
As we walked through the bar to leave, I stood in the opening in front of the stage. I looked around, thinking my way through time to some night in the 70s when Lynyrd Skynyrd stepped on stage. Just some long-haired Florida boys, playing like you’ve never heard before. I looked around the floor, imagining the packed houses they must have played for. I wondered what it must have been like, how the atmosphere would have felt, the first time these walls rumbled with the first sliding notes of “Free Bird”.
As the group walked out, I looked around for Justin and found him crouched against a wall. I payed no mind and leaned against the bar until he rushed by to catch up with the group. I went back and saw the place he left his mark, the footprint of the Acid Boys. I ran out the bar and down the street to catch up with the group while we walked through the December rain to the venue.
As we came back in the building, we could hear Pete singing “Laid Low”.
“It’s true enough I’ve paid for a ride I didn’t mean to take but never have I wanted to forget it,” he sang, powerfully.
“Thank y’all very kindly,” is all he had to say between songs.
I thought of something while I watched Igoe and Justin take the stage for the last time that night. It was less a thought and more a feeling. Something to do with brotherhood and comradery. We’re out here together, neck deep and sinking into a way of life. For each of them, a life without music would be a failure to be living fully. Where there’s a stage and an audience there are people like Justin and Igoe looking to put on a show and share their greatest passion.
“The next song we’re gonna play is about surfing but it’s also about violence,” Justin said, scratching his forehead. “We live in Charleston where there’s a pretty vibrant surfing community. You can probably tell by lookin’ at me that I’m not a part of that community, as surfing requires this elusive thing called upper body strength. Never really chased that down. But I have some friends who were nice enough to bring me along to come try it out.”
“We went out and it was a beautiful morning. The water was glassy, and there were dolphins. And it just blew my mind and made me wonder how do we get to live in such a wonderful world?”
“After that I was like, ‘Call me next time and every time after that you guys go.’”
“They brought me out again a few days later and it was totally different. There was a big storm rolling in. I kept trying to get out into the waves, but I couldn’t do it. I kept just trying for like three hours and I started singing this little mantra: it comes in waves. After a while I gave up and just ripped cigs on the beach and watched my friends catch waves.”
“It was about a year after that I started thinking about the juxtaposition between those two days. And so, I guess this song was written about that feeling of confliction and it’s called Waves.”
Justin strummed the opening chords, letting his voice rip through those first lines. “Why’s there so much trouble,” he sang, leaning into the mic while Igoe backed him up. “We live in such a remarkable place.”
The last song they played was “Acid Boys”. Before they finished, Justin gave thanks to everyone for coming. He thanked Pete for opening and Igoe for performing with him. He thanked Van the Good for all that he had done on his first tour as Tour Manager.
Finally, he looked at me in the crowd and said, “We’ve also had a writer along with us for the last half of the tour. A Canadian writer named Matt Harrison.”
He smiled as he went on to say something else, but I couldn’t hear him over the cheering crowd. I put my hand over my heart and gave him a nod as he spoke. Whatever it was he said, I suspect it was something I had already felt along the way. When I had ceased being some just some writer clung to the underside of the van is indefinable. It was somewhere in those countless miles, those late-night joints and bleary-eyed mornings that I had become a friend among friends.
Weed was plentiful that night through the after party and the crew drank their fill. We spent most of the night in the bar attached to our hotel, shooting pool and playing foosball. The party cleared out when the bar closed and we went next door to the hotel around 3am. In the lobby of the hotel sat a white grand piano. Igoe sat down at it and started playing.
“Igoe, can you play Rosetta?” Van the Good asked.
A few tears built slowly and ran quickly down my face as we watched her sing. The beauty of her voice and the piano carried through the grand entrance of the hotel with the soothing fluidity of rainfall. At the end of the song, a hotel employee came rushing down the hall at us, clapping his hands and yelling.
“Hey, hey, hey!” he yelled. “You can’t be playin’ right now, it’s three in the mornin’!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she softly sang the last line of her song.
We kept our laughter quiet as we went upstairs and continued the party in room 231.
It was around 4:00am when Justin asked me a good question: “Matt Harrison, what are you doing here, man?!”. The last time he asked me this same question we were in Mobile, and he had just taken a hit of a joint. This time, The Gift Bowl was still smoking in his hand as he said it. “For all we know you could be the Devil,” he said. He eyed me suspiciously as he brought the bowl to his lips.
It’s as if it took the right combination of liquor and weed for the charade I had been upholding to fall apart. Ultimately, there’s no valid explanation, no good reason for me to be here for any of this. I’m not an elite member of the press or an exploring documentarian. I was just a SUSTO fan who got lucky.
I’d read The Proud Highway by Hunter S. Thompson and saw how many letters he sent to editors, politicians, other writers, anyone and everyone he thought would be worth while writing to. I mimicked that idea when I wrote Justin the letter that pitched the idea of me coming on tour with him. All I really did was write a letter. And there I was because of it, laughing along with Justin, Igoe, and Van the Good after touring with them for the last 10 days.
The next morning wouldn’t begin until the early afternoon. We passed The Gift Bowl around the van before we cleared out of the hotel parking lot. After these countless miles, it’s still the same four-person crew. Today the pace is our own and home is the destination for some much-needed R&R.
We met Pete for brunch before he went back his own way. As we sat down, Justin asked the server, “Do y’all sell any liquor drinks?”
The answer was no, so an unsweetened tea would have to suffice.
We said our goodbyes to Pete and drove back through the loping hills of Georgia. The energy in the van was lower than it was yesterday as we trekked through these final miles of tour.
“PTSTea is still the funniest thing I have ever said,” James said to a unanimous approval of the van as we crossed back into South Carolina.
The rolling wheels of the luggage cart echoed down the hall of the storage facility until we stopped at the unit where the light takes three pulls to click on. We loaded the merchandise bins away for the last time and pulled the wide metal door shut.
“How much more of that cigarette do you have?” I asked James as I stepped out of the building. “Half? Perfect. Can I borrow a lighter?”
“You do notice that I have not held up the convoy at any point in time?” James said as he passed me his lighter. “I have crushed beers and have not had to make a single piss stop.” His voice was calm as he spoke. “From an efficiency standpoint, everyone can suck ma dick.”
I raised a cigarette to his achievement, ashed it out, and climbed into the van. No one said anything as we drove through Charleston and pulled up outside Rialto Row.
Collectively, we had taken hits to the liver, the psyche, the lungs and otherwise. As we puttered down the dark streets of Charleston, I began feeling the end of the road, the end of the adventure. That first night in Chicago, the end seemed like an address we would never pull up in front of. Yet here we were, parked outside of Rialto Row. James, Van, and I climbed out of the van.
“Matt, it’s been a great ride, bud,” Justin said as I grabbed my things out of the van. “Monday, let’s get lunch before ya go. If you need anything, hit me up. King street is just through here. If you want anything, you can walk as far as you’re willing to.”
“Alright, man, it’s been real,” I said, unsure of the appropriate words for the end of such an experience.
“Yeah, dude. It’s been amazing. I’m glad we were able to make it work.”
“It just took a bit of time.”
“Yeah. I’ll see you around in a day or so.”
There will be other tours for Justin, for Igoe, and for Van the Good. James hasn’t crushed his last Budweiser on the road, either. But this tour, this particular stretch of highway and memories, has found its end.
“Take care, bud,” I said as I gave Igoe a hug goodbye.
“You too, bud,” she said before she climbed into the van.
I shed a couple tears while I watched the second show in Charleston, thinking about the looming end of tour. As I heard the van fire up and watched it roll down the street, I could only be happy any of this ever happened. The highway overpass sent a continual hum through the warm December night as their brake lights flashed at the end of the street before they turned left and pulled out of sight.