When Auckland psychedelic post-punk foursome Swallow The Rat were announced to perform at SXSW in 2019 it was seemingly out of nowhere. Their bio however revealed that this ‘newcomer’ band had, in fact, been around for two years with a good number of shows under the belt. Additional to that is the accumulated experience spread between bandmates Sam Vercoe, Brian Purington, Hayden Fritchley and Stephen Horsley, who’ve all done the hard yards over years in other local indie bands. With an album ready to go they were accepted once again for SXSW 2020 and had booked themselves a substantial North American tour that also included The New Colossus, a five day festival in New York’s Lower East Side. In fact when Covid-19 became a serious global concern they were well into it. Drummer Hayden was good enough to file this OFS report for NZM readers.
(BTW: We’d be keen to hear from any other acts similarly affected while overseas – drop us a line!)
Having been invited to play The New Colossus Festival over 11-15 March 2020 we thought alright, let’s build a deeper US tour around this. So we spent the next few months booking dates that would lead us to New York. During this process we also got accepted into SXSW 2020 in Austin, Texas. By mid-February, a 21-date US tour was locked in that would link the two festivals together. All the work put into organising this was DIY.
Friday Feb 29
In a way, the tone was set a day before we flew out for the States, when I popped into my local Countdown to get some snacks for the flight and a lady was at the checkout panic buying with five loaded trolleys! Nevertheless, intel from our people on the ground in the States was that everything was good, and the call had been made to go. On Saturday 29 Feb we flew to Austin, Texas.
Brian flew over a few days earlier, so he picked us up from the airport that day about 4pm in the white Ford V8 ‘My Education’ van. This is to be our tour wagon/escape pod for the next three weeks. The rest of that weekend we spent ticking boxes around town; Our US representative Ryan Cano’s 40th. Carousel Lounge to catch Brian play guitar for Baby Robots. Headbump HQ to run through a set. Guitar Centre for last minute purchases. Meet up with our label boss Brandon Tucker to pick up our new merch (stoked to see how the record art turned out!). Interview at Koop FM (jet-lagged, I fall asleep at the table there). Catch up with Skye who does our live visuals, he loans us a couple of projectors for the tour.
Monday March 2
For the next seven days we head north playing iconic dive bar venues in Dallas, Denton, Tulsa, Kansas City, St Louis, Chicago and Detroit. A haze of sprawling state highways, pickups blitzing passed us inside and out. Flanking industrial landscape seemingly endless, sky high neons indicating the next fast food truckstop. Roadkill deer. Vulture spotting. Twister shrapnel. Genre debates. Motorway pile ups. Further barren winter landscapes of nothing blur into interstate toll roads, then vast cityscapes reveal themselves. Steady diet of pizza by the slice, tacos, chilli dogs, beer and cans of astringent Starbucks cold brew. Scrolling soundtrack of classic rock, hair metal and evangelist talkback radio. Eventually it’s my turn to have a crack at left hand driving. We create our own road rule; “Left is left, right is right, don’t matter where ya from.” I manage to turn into oncoming traffic only once…
Interest in the band aside, these cities were largely chosen on our ability to get free accomodation through our network of friends there, which also means hitting it every night. The strategy of pacing oneself throughout the tour is quickly forgotten. Grateful upon arrival in each place that we are always guided to the coolest bars and eateries.
In sleepy Denton, I walk into a pawn shop. Death metal is playing quietly on the stereo, and vintage guitars are on display next to hand guns and semi automatics. Freaky. The dude at the counter asks where I’m from. I say I’m from New Zealand and mention that we don’t sell guns at Cash Converters. “Welcome to Texas,” he drawls back.
Midday and hungover, our host Major takes us for a hair of the dog at Orpha’s Lounge, “the shittiest bar in Tulsa”. Like a TAB wet dream, smoking is still permitted in this tragic 1950s alcoholic resting zone. Racist country music drones out of the jukebox.
After loading into Sinkhole in St Louis, we google a good burger place about five blocks away and go for a wander through what feels like a scene from GTA. A makeshift roadblock with the word KILL spray-painted on it forces us the long way round. When we return to the venue we’re told we should not have walked there and that everyone in the area is “carrying”.
The guitarist of the band we played with reveals that he has two switchblades on him. I ask him why. “Why the fuck you think?” he retorts. Later that night, Tony the sound guy invites us back to his place to crash. Stephen has by now proven to be the loudest snorer, he selflessly opts to sleep in the van to guard the gear. Dogs circle.
Four dates into the 21 planned there is talk of concerns over Covid-19, but reports from SXSW say there’s no evidence that closing venues or banning public gatherings will make the community safer. Less than 24 hours later news breaks that SXSW has been cancelled. At this point only our NZ Day Party Showcase has been affected there, and The New Colossus Festival is still on. In fact, if anything, we’re getting offered more shows as other bands are now unable to get into the country. By the time we hit Chicago on Day 6, we’re playing really well and confident of completing the tour.
Smashed from a Sunday all-nighter in Detroit, we drive five hours to Clearfield for a day’s recording with Fred Weaver (Mono). Arriving late, we set up and amazingly end up recording four new songs between 11pm and 4am. Later that morning and wiped out after only a few hours sleep it’s time to make the trek to New York City for our show tonight in Brooklyn. Google Maps is our friend and foe as we approach the Holland Tunnel. Our Auckland friends TOOMS come see us play and we all kick on till early hours. 2am we drive though mean streets to Queens and meet up with Oliver Ackermann. He generously throws us the keys to Death By Audio and we base ourselves there for the next five days. Unreal hookup.
New York is simply massive, but things feel weirdly less hustle ’n bustle than what I expected. Ominously we are able to easily find a park right outside venues in Lower East Side Manhattan. Our schedule for NCF keeps getting reshuffled as some bands have either not made it into the US, or have pulled out altogether. Exploring New York as a global pandemic breaks out feels like we are in a John Carpenter film. There’s a lingering paranoid vibe. Subway is eerily quiet. I find myself opening doors with my forearm and flushing toilets with my feet.
Saturday March 14
By now the situation changes almost hourly. Venues for our following week of shows are starting to close. All states right back to Texas are now on the cusp of shutting down altogether. The decision is made to pull out of our last NCF show and make a run for Austin to return the van. This is a three day drive – we complete it in two! One stretch is a frantic 25 hour straight drive across eight states, rotating shifts at the wheel whilst trying to reschedule flights back to NZ.
There is a reluctance to rest anywhere in case we find ourselves stuck, or that whatever is chasing us catches up. Arriving back in Austin is surreal as we find nearly everything is already going into total lockdown. We read reports of Winston Peters threatening border closures, but we’re forced to wait a few more anxious days as airline cancellations drag on. Finally, we manage to separately scramble onto some of the last available flights home. LAX resembles Palmerston North. We ghost through normally hectic international terminals that are now rendered virtually deserted.
My flight from Los Angles to Auckland is not even a quarter-full. The airline staff move everyone to the front section of the plane but we still get a whole row each to spread out in. They ask us to keep at least two metres distance and not congregate in the aisles or outside the toilets. I start wondering, how sanitised are the surfaces from the previous flight?
We’re waiting to take off, someone coughs, then the death stares come from other passengers. Overhearing someone discussing their own circumstances, I think about how everyone on this flight is probably a returning Kiwi. Even though it sucks to cut the tour short, after the drama of trying to escape, there’s a sense of relief that I’m now sitting on this plane and actually about to leave the US.
Saturday March 21
Arrivals in Auckland is dead quiet. New Covid-19 border restrictions have just been introduced so we find a checkpoint awaiting us at Immigration. There are a few questions about how we’re feeling and where we’ve been traveling, then that’s it, we’re through. After collecting my cymbals from baggage I head directly home to begin my 14 days of self-isolation. It’s whack to think that just a few days ago we were about to head to New Orleans to play a St Patrick’s Day gig. By the following Wednesday NZ is in Level 4 lockdown.