This is the first instalment in a series entitled ‘View From the Rumble Strip’, detailing life at the sharp end of touring with no money, no sense and no self-respect! Absolutely no names have been changed to protect the innocent, although Paul Reynolds name has been changed to Raoul (pronounced ‘Ra – ooool’!) simply because it’s funny!
It all started in Sheffield. Raoul tried dropping a plectrum down the back of my jeans while I was bent over fiddling with Maria’s pedalboard during their soundcheck. Before the show began, I wandered into Noterminus’ empty dressing room (yes, two dressing rooms – luxury!) and discovered Raoul’s stash of plectra scattered haphazardly all over a table. In retaliation, I coated them all with copious amounts of my saliva – yum! He didn’t find out until Maria spilled the beans in York, whereupon Raoul vowed revenge. Since then ‘Plectrum Licker’ has become a term of abuse!
Fast-forward to the final show of the tour – The Tunnels in Bristol. The previous night, the usual suspects (Maria, Raoul and I) had been trying to outgross each other with the most outrageous pranks that could be pulled – of course none actually topped Scott’s feat of coating himself in some tramp’s vomit – but still, we gave it a go! Memorable ideas included coating strings with vaseline, stuffing Brie into the jack socket of someone’s guitar, puking over the power tubes in an amplifier (believe me, when those valves heat up you’ll never get rid of the smell!), offering someone semen for use as hair gel, surreptitiously stirring people’s (cold) drinks with a penis, covering vocal microphones with condoms – I’m sure I don’t need to go on.
Raoul spent the day indulging in psychological warfare by trying to wind me up about how epic his plan for revenge would be. Maria even warned me that he’d gone completely over the top, and the best course of action would be for Sankara to do nothing, thereby removing any justification Raoul would have for unleashing his Prank of Doom. Truth be told, I had no inclination to descend to a nineteen-year-old’s level of puerile behaviour, and Arnie, Paul and myself all agreed that the funniest thing to do would be to leave Noterminus alone, and watch them wind themselves up waiting for the prank that would never come. Unfortunately, Raoul decided their fate by covering my hair in high-density squirty foam soap, as an apéritif to tonight’s prank de grace. Of course, it backfired because I simply asked for more of the soap and then went and washed my hair in the bathroom sink, while Raoul stood and watched, muttering, “So I did you a favour just then?”
“Yes. I needed to wash my hair before tonight – thanks.”
Thinking furiously, I decided on the perfect course of action – after Noterminus’ soundcheck I sneaked onto the stage and re-calibrated Maria and Raoul’s tuners to different frequencies. Pretty much all bassists and guitarists stick to a tuning reference of the A string on a guitar being tuned to 440 hertz – whether they tune their instruments to standard tuning or not, their electronic tuners are set to A440. However, there are certain circumstances where it becomes necessary to use a different reference pitch – for instance, a piano that has a specific sound you wish to use on a recording, but isn’t at concert pitch. Simply alter the reference pitch of your tuner until it shows A4 on the piano as being in tune, then tune the other instruments accordingly. But what happens when two guitarists and a bassist are playing together with their guitars tuned to different reference points?
Rich, the sound engineer at The Tunnels, described it as “feeling like my brain was going to leak out of my ears!” I’d deliberately chosen the frequencies of 332Hz for Maria and 445Hz for Raoul so as to maximise the tuning carnage – I left Scott’s tuner alone, to give the band a sporting chance. If they realised that they had been sabotaged they could use his bass as a reference to re-tune to. I then positioned myself up against the wall by the front-left of the stage, to step in after Noterminus’s opening number and set things right.
But first it was Ryan James’ turn! As a solo performer, Ryan has tuned his abilities to deal with hecklers to a fine degree. At some point all of us have been put in our place while trying to (ahem!) get a rise out of him onstage. A couple of songs into his set, Maria accosted me in the dressing room and told me of her plan – we had to dance our way across the floor to the front of the stage (to avoid tipping off Ryan that something was about to happen), and then Maria would whip out the bra she’d concealed inside her top and place it over his steam-punk-influenced top hat and goggles. The question was, when in the set should this happen? Ryan touches on a number of autobiographical subjects in his songs, some of which are extremely serious and having a bra launched at his face while singing about the trauma of witnessing a friend assaulted by drunken homophobes probably wasn’t a good idea. Fortunately, he usually slipped ‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga into his set somewhere, and we decided that was probably the best time to mug him with mammary restrainers. Fortunately, Ryan thought it was so funny that he removed the bra from his headgear after the song and put it on in a more conventional manner, before dedicating Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ to Raoul and performing it in his honour!
The time was now upon us to witness the magnificence of Noterminus! Maria, Scott, Vinden and Raoul strolled out onto the stage, accompanied by cheers from the audience. While Vinden seated himself behind his drums, the other members picked up their instruments and checked their tuning. Immediately, Maria scowled at me and said, “Have you touched my guitar?”
“No, I haven’t fiddled with your guitar”, I replied truthfully.
Satisfied that their instruments were in tune, the band launched into their opening number. Cue instant cacophony! Amazingly, none of them seemed to notice! They finished their first song and I decided that I’d wait until someone onstage actually displayed signs of recognising just how snafu’ed they were before I would offer my assistance. After a brief chat to the crowd, Maria started playing the introduction to the next tune. As she began to sing, it slowly dawned on her that her guitar was completely out of tune with her voice! Then the bass and other guitar came in, and the creeping realisation that none of them were in tune with each other began! I actually watched the blood draining from Maria’s face as she struggled to keep her voice in pitch against the onslaught of three instruments that were completely clashing against one another! By this point, everyone was checking their tuning during any moments in the song that they weren’t playing, all to no avail! Deciding that enough was enough, and I’d had my fun at their expense, I jumped onstage as soon as the song came grinding to a halt and explained what had happened. After mere seconds of pushing buttons both Maria and Raoul’s tuners were back where they should have been, and Noterminus were able to play their set more harmoniously. Watching their faces when the realisation sank in was priceless, though. As was the copious amounts of swearing down the microphone and Raoul throwing me the finger every chance he could get while playing! I can’t wait to see the video footage!
During the changeover between our sets, Maria and Raoul vowed retribution! Apparently, Sankara were going to be pranked so hard our ancestors would feel it! We shrugged and got on with the job of playing our set. I was mildly concerned that the stage lighting prevented me from seeing anything lobbed from out of the audience, but I figured my reflexes were fast enough to dodge any airborne missiles. Halfway through our set we’ve been playing ‘The Doll’s House’, a duet that Gareth and Maria recorded for Sankara’s debut album. Every night on the tour Maria has been coming onstage and singing it, and tonight was no different – except that tonight she’d acquired false teeth with flashing, colour-changing LEDs built in to them! Unfortunately, we’ve all earned our apprenticeships in pubs in the South Wales Valleys – nothing distracts us enough to stop playing, including having to lay out drunken stage-invaders mid power chord! Flashing teeth aren’t really going to cut it!
But Noterminus were only warming up! Right near the end of our show, Maria and Raoul invaded our stage with blow-up guitars and proceeded to emulate Bill and Ted on either side. I had the misfortune of standing next to a topless, sunglasses-wearing Raoul, so I did what any ADHD guitarist in my situation would – I licked all the way up his right arm from wrist to shoulder, mmmmm salty! From the look on his face, I’d say he hadn’t expected that! Afterwards we’d found out that they had taped signs to the audience-facing sides of our monitor speakers. Mine read ‘Free Blow Jobs’, while Gareth’s had ‘I heart Gary Barlow’ written on it.
I think next time we’ll take a leaf out of Alice In Chains book – g strings and combat boots agogo!