Circular Path

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 I. Around and ’Round

Notes from Dark Dark Dark Tours 2009–2011


For why enter in on a circular path
On a pilgrimage leading straight back…?

—Elephant Micah

The beauty of rhythmic repetition is that it ties time into knots. When the same thing happens again and again, memory and expectation overlap. This time feels just like the last time, but it carries us forward. The sun rises, the clock ticks, the chorus of the song comes back around. After a couple of times, we’re ready to tap our fingers or sing along. But no matter how regular an occurrence, no matter how identical its reiteration, it can’t be the same. You’ve changed, I’ve changed. The world has changed. The return of that familiar pattern might tempt us to believe in eternity, but eventually the song is over. We confront ourselves again in the silence that comes after the last echo.

Remembering the details of a music tour is a bit like trying to hum a song that you’ve only heard once. You know how it changed you; you know how you felt when you listened to it. You know the overall rhythm, but the tune and the words come back in bits and pieces. And the most compelling part of the melody is the part you can’t seem to pin down. It makes you want to hear the song again, even though you know it will always sound different from the way you remember it.

I may tour with Dark Dark Dark again, or I may not. After five years of making music and traveling together, our working dynamic is changing. We’ve been on hiatus for five months now, so my tour journals seem more like a distant reminiscence than a current report. Still, thinking of life on the road reminds me that it’s not so hard to feel at home, anywhere.

II. Tour, Tourism and Not Collecting

We are on tour. Five people with musical instruments, sleeping bags, extra socks. A battered white van with a wooden loft behind the bench seat. A couple of milk crates full of snacks and tea. A show every night, always in a new town. The hospitality of strangers or old friends. A drive each morning, sometimes departing in the hushed hours after the show if there’s no place to stay. Constant change can become a kind of routine if there is a rhythm to it. In the steady flow of unfamiliar streets, new faces, new music, memories blur together. It’s okay, though. We’re not traveling to collect memories of every detail. We’re here to play a show, and we’ll be back soon enough.

On a midnight drive I drift off to sleep and awaken suddenly, not sure if I’m on land or at sea. The van sways gently on the freeway’s swelling curves. Have I been dreaming or remembering the street I wandered yesterday before the show? This very stretch of highway could be the same as last night’s. Every detail of the asphalt is in focus through the cracked windshield, but nothing to distinguish this stretch of paved land from any other.

We share the term “tour” with people who go on journeys to inspect geographical sites, remnants of history, triumphs of industry. They gaze at wonders and listen to the tales of origins. They collect trinkets, photographs, memories—miniatures of the outer world to take home to their inner one. We collect supplies that help us feel at home in Baltimore or the truck stop in Kentucky. Hot water, scrap paper, a lottery ticket.

We bring our home with us so we can host guests wherever we go. Each day’s work is devoted to transporting this world, setting up the tools of its making and bringing it to life for an hour or less. Then we dismantle it again, coiling cables and folding stands, carrying amplifiers and packing it all away in cases and canvas bags. And back to our tortoise shell, our house on wheels. No matter where we go, it is the same place.

Oh, there are adventures, too, no doubt about it. Unplanned detours, chance meetings, a dance party down the street, a home-cooked breakfast. But these come and go, blurring together like dreams of uncertain credibility. Should I try to collect these dreams and save them for later? I’m busy trying to take my world with me to the next place. Why try to collect pieces of everything else along the way?

III. Collecting After All

I have always been skeptical about souvenirs. It seems like such a burden to try to memorialize travel by collecting objects. On tour, I don’t save show posters or set lists. I don’t buy trinkets, T-shirts or even records. My backpack is heavy enough already.

Still, somehow I end up with a few token objects that I hold onto without really thinking about it. I don’t keep them with a collector’s sense of order and purpose. A collector has sets, categories, classifications. A collector is driven by the thrill of the hunt for the next piece of the puzzle, the next edition, the missing link. Every once in a while I pick up a fragment that has some personal significance, and I can’t bring myself to let it go. But I don’t consciously try to find more fragments of the same type. I hold onto the thing because its appearance is attached to unusual circumstances, or the thing itself has a compelling presence. In the circular routine of a tour, it is a lucky interruption. I recently dug through some boxes of odds and ends, searching for tour souvenirs, trying to figure out if I’ve begun any collections in spite of myself.

These found or gifted pocketknives are as close as I’ve come to having a proper collection of anything. I keep them because they’re useful, but also because they’re attached to a sense of time and place. The small silver knife came from upstate New York one summer, a gift from a friend after I lost a different knife. We explored an abandoned house, and I think we found the knife there, or at least that’s the memory I’ve attached to the object. The tool reminds me of mildewed books and torn carpet, moss growing on wooden rafters. I wore the knife on my keychain for at least a year afterward. I’ve used every gizmo on it, even the corkscrew.

I think the red Swiss Army knife comes from the same winter tour when we had to pull off the freeway in the middle of the night in Maryland during an ice storm. I don’t remember how I acquired the knife, and I’ve rarely used it.

I found the orange “juice” multi-tool on the sidewalk in San Jose. There were tangerine trees planted in wooden boxes in a nearby parking lot. I saw a glint on the concrete, almost the same color as the fruit. The pliers are slightly bent, but the scissors is amazing.

The large Douk-Douk was given to me by my dear friend Matthieu. He knew I admired his knife when we used it to cut a watermelon while sitting on the cobblestones in a public square in Venice. We drank water from a wrought-iron fountain and ate slices of juicy melon, laughing at the mess we made. He etched an arrow design into the handle of mine.

The larger of these two feathers came from a particularly aggressive duck in a public park in Tallahassee. We had a whole afternoon to relax before our show, and we took a picnic lunch to the park. There was a flock of ducks around the pond. One of the ducks had a tail feather that seemed to be detached but somehow stuck to the other feathers at a crooked angle. This duck, agitated, wouldn’t leave us alone. We thought that this loose feather was the cause of the duck’s bad temper. On a dare, Marshall decided he would steal the feather. I lured the duck away with tortilla chips and Marshall snuck around behind to pluck the crooked feather. I’m surprised that I still have it.

The smaller feather came from my friend Monica. While visiting her house in Oakland, I told her I liked the color of her parakeet’s feathers, and she found one on the bottom of the bird’s cage for me to take.

The striated piece of driftwood came from a river bank. Someplace we went swimming to ease the monotony of a long drive between shows. Maybe it was half-buried in the sand where I laid my clothes down. I don’t remember where it’s from, or when.

The jawbone, sun bleached, was by a sidewalk in the city. Someplace I walked aimlessly to kill time before the show. I don’t remember where it’s from, or when. Somehow, I kept both and they ended up together.


IV. Rain, Terschelling

I am standing under a grove of trees next to a narrow road. Bicyclists pass me in twos and threes, their plastic ponchos ballooning behind them. The asphalt is slick. I’ve passed this grove twice now, or is it three times? I know I’ve been walking in circles, and I’m going to take a break for a while until the rain subsides.

The festival-goers pass, parading from one event to the next, with brochures and umbrellas. They laugh and swig cans of beer, or pedal lazily. The rain is no interruption for them; it’s just part of the North Sea landscape. I start walking again.

We play two concerts that afternoon, but with a few hours between shows I have time to explore the Isle of Terschelling and get a glimpse of the Oerol Festival. I’ve passed geometric plywood video kiosks, catering pavilions, a Dutch rockabilly band playing in a tent, a makeshift bar filled with drunken revelers all lifting their beer mugs and singing along with an accordion player. The festival events are spread out along the unmarked roads and trails of the rural island. I happen upon some experimental theatre performances, but without any understanding of the Dutch language the dialogue is lost on me. And in spite of the map I picked up at an information desk, I can’t seem to figure out where I am, so finding any particular show turns out to be impossible.

If the rain stops, we’ll perform again in an hour. I doubt the weather will clear, so I’m not worried about being lost. I’d like to get back to our backstage tent to dry off and have a cup of tea. Even though it’s summer, the wind from the sea is cold, and I’m not dressed for the weather.

Somehow, I end up back at the forest pavilion stage a few minutes before we’re scheduled to play again. It’s still raining, but an audience has already gathered, huddled in their ponchos, waiting for the show to begin. We have some delicate acoustic instruments and a lot of electricity on stage. It seems like a bad idea to play under an open-sided pavilion with water blowing in from all sides. We’re ready to call off the second show when the rain tapers off.

After the second show, we have a cup of tea with the stage manager, Linda. She asks where we’re going next, and we tell her about our itinerary for the next few days.

“So, this is what you do?” she says. “You go to a different place every day, all over the world, and you perform?”

We agree that this is basically our job as musicians.

“Wow,” she says. “That must be…so…”

I mentally supply the next word for her. I’m sure it will be “romantic” or “exciting” or “amazing.”

Well, yes, we will say, it’s wonderful but it is also exhausting and repetitive, and although we see a lot of places, we don’t get to know many very well because most of the time we’re riding in the van or unloading the van or sound-checking or playing or reloading the van or sometimes even getting some sleep. So, yes, we are very grateful to be doing what we love, but it’s not as dreamy as you might think.

She finishes her sentence.

“That must be…so…terrible.”

We laugh because she understands, more than most.

V. Half In, Half Out

One July evening we play in a crowded courtyard behind a bar. There isn’t enough space on the patio stones, so people lean out of the doorway and cluster on the fire escape above our heads, listening. Without a stage or lighting there’s hardly a separation between us and these strangers. There’s no illusion about what it is we’ve brought with us: a set of songs and little else. They are with us for an hour, listening, understanding how we pass our time. Applause, kind words, and then it’s time to pack up and go.

After the show our hosts take us to the nearest supermarket to pick up a snack, then we head for the creek in the center of town to meet their friends. The banks of the mountain spring have been walled with concrete where it passes through the city park, forming a long rectangular swimming pool. The surface is like black glass, reflecting yellow streetlights and the shadows of passing joggers. A few pale swimmers surface and push rows of ripples away into the dark. There are clusters of kids by the water’s edge, huddled in conversation, bikes overturned beside them.

We sit with one of these groups, and conversation buzzes with the endless possibilities of a summer night. After the hush of a concert, these kids are done listening and are ready to live. More bikers roll up, beers are pulled out of backpacks, phone calls are made. I sit on the edge of the concrete bank. My bare legs disappear into the cold water. I’m too exhausted to jump in. An hour ago, I was on stage, hosting guests in my portable world. Now I’m part of the audience again.


VI. Swimming

The gate is locked. Wrought iron, ten or twelve feet tall, it secures the only entrance to the courtyard where we’re trying to go. Stelth is standing with us. “Hold on, I’ll get us in,” he says. With a quick leap, he spiders his way from foothold to foothold and squeezes his body through the narrow space between the gate and the brick arch overhead. In a matter of seconds, he is calmly opening the gate from the other side. Stelth is not a nickname. His mother was prophetic—or persuasive.

Nine of us stroll into the brand-new condominium complex like casual guests. It’s been unbearably hot all day, and five of us have just driven 250 miles with no air conditioning. I am barefoot, and the concrete is cool in the shade of the corridor. As we enter the courtyard, the hot wind pushes a curtain of clouds over the sun. The rectangle of turquoise water at our feet glows and flickers. I manage to look away from the pool and check out the rest of the courtyard. Off to one side, a bunch of clean-cut kids in bright swimsuits lounge at patio tables, drinking cans of beer. They smile at us. If they know we don’t live here, they don’t care. Maybe they don’t live here either.

Then the first drops of rain begin to fall, cold and heavy, arousing shrieks of surprise and groans of disappointment as the would-be sunbathers gather up their towels and aluminum cans. We hesitate for a second and retreat back into the corridor as the drizzle turns to a downpour. But we’ve come all this way and now we could have the whole pool to ourselves…

Stelth goes first. He disappears into the water like an otter. His dark silhouette twists to the opposite side of the pool. Laura is next, and soon the two are splashing and shoving each other around like kids, making a frothing whirlpool. I leave my T-shirt and shorts in a pile next to the wall and jog across the deck in my underwear, shivering under the torrents of rain. I jump, feet-first, and the water swallows me instantly. Shivers and doubts dissolve—along with temperature, time, weight, distance, words. It’s always like this in the world underwater. A gentle pressure reminds you of the boundary between your skin and everything else. Beyond this sensation, nothing is important. You’ve left the land-world behind. Even in the chlorine stink of a condo pool, the water has its power.

I don’t know how long I’m in the water, somersaulting, kicking, watching the downpour churn the surface. It is only a few minutes. By the time I emerge, the rain has stopped.

After a swim, there is always a feeling of being at home in the world again. How simple it is to breathe and move through air. The revelation connects every swim to every past swim…

I’m climbing out of a strange pool in Denver with goose bumps on my skin.

I’m a child again, my arms aching, almost too weak to clamber out of the community pool.

I’m a teenager, striding out of Lake Michigan at midnight, elated by the frigid water and hot July air, the pitch darkness and the faint silhouettes of my naked friends beside me.

I have no idea where I am, but I belong here.

Jonathan Kaiser has played cello with the band Dark Dark Dark for the past five years, touring extensively in the U.S. and Europe, collaborating with Swimming Cities and the Miss Rockaway Armada and acting in Todd Chandler’s film Flood Tide.  Jonathan composed much of the material for the band’s two live film soundtrack projects (for Flood Tide and Fritz Lang’s Spies), which have been presented at venues including the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Socrates Sculpture Park, New York; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Jonathan received an MFA in visual art from the University of Minnesota in 2011 and is currently working on recording new music and practicing inaccurate-perspective drawing.

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