Just do what the man with the camera says

Crossing from Dover to Calais was cool. Ferry travel is the way to go. We pulled into the belly of the boat, parked, and then went above to a higher deck and lounged around this very upmarket looking salon-ish area. It was kind of like hanging out in an airport departure gate.

The trip across the English Channel at Dover to Calais is only about 20 miles, so the voyage is about and hour and ten minutes. I spent the lion’s share of that out on deck watching the black ocean surge by. There was a stiff breeze, so the seas were medium rough. There was definitely some rocking motion to the deck. Halfway across we were suddenly being tailed by a cloud of 10000 seagulls. They were dipping and diving in the lee of the ship and looked like a handful of white confetti tossed against the black sky. I mostly loathe seagulls, but this was quite a sight.

Once in Calais, we checked into the most unpleasant hotel I have ever seen. I suppose I should be grateful to be sleeping out of the weather, yes, and I didn’t have to come out of pocket for this place, so I shouldn’t complain… but you had to SEE this place. The rooms contained a double bed and then a sort of flyover bed, like a bunk bed but perpendicular to the double bed. It reminded me of a bridge over the interstate. The room itself had one hard and dilapidated chair with more screws missing than it still possessed, a tiny desk and a television that was screwed to the wall. Bathrooms were common areas down the hall- toilet in one closet, shower in the other. Everything was made of colored plastic or concrete and I could stand in the middle of the room and nearly touch both walls. I think that these places exist as halfway points for immigrants workers coming into or going out of France. I can’t imagine anyone staying there for anything other than the most rudimentary need to sleep SOMEWHERE as cheaply as possible. That said, we slept like logs because we were tired from all of the driving.

However, we did go out and have a meal before settling into our hard little beds. I had my first meal in France, Boeuf Bourgenione, served with fries, and it was SPECTACULAR. There is a large shopping center in Calais, I am sure that it exists to cater to folks crossing over from the UK to buy tobacco, whiskey and other goods that are heavily taxed in the UK. Just next to that was a surprisingly cozy little restaurant where we had a truly excellent French meal while watching the French sports channel and arguing about whether Muse or Kean are a worse band.

The next morning we rose as early as we could stand, and I staggered down to the shower closet, where I reluctantly took the hottest shower imaginable. There were two temperatures in this shower- scalding and off. I was very pink for the first few hours of the day.

Since this is my first trip to France, I spent all morning staring out the windows of the van and soaking it all in. Just outside of Calais, there are huge community gardens- I am guessing that if one has an apartment in a high rise and no place to grow a garden, then the family can rent one of these plots- there are small shacks that I would guess are full of tools, seeds, fertilizer and other necessities. There are also large tanks outside that may contain agricultural chemicals or just water for irrigation. Even this late in the year, the gardens were still going strong, full of cabbages and what looked like kale and other fall crops. I have never seen anything like that in an American city.

Just past Calais going into France, there is some open countryside. This is, if I understand correctly, considered by the French to be “redneck France,” so I was interested to see if I felt at home. An hour into our drive, a pale yellow old Citroen was parked at the end of a road near the highway. Walking out of the woods was a fine looking dog and three men who were all (safely) carrying shotguns and dressed in boots and wool hunting clothes. I assume rabbit season is open in Northern France, then. I suspect that the locals can think of some tasty things to do with a freshly killed rabbit or pheasant.

We stopped for coffee at a truck stop about an hour later and while I was standing there the fucking TGV (“Train de Grande Vitesse” or, directly translated, “The Train of Big Speed”) came rocketing past. The TGV must travel at over 120 mph. The sound it makes is earthshaking. What a way to travel!

The road to Paris from Calais parallels the TGV track for much of the way, and at least three times while we were doing 70 or 80 mph the TGV blasted past us like we were standing still. I need to take that train one day. It’s a beast.

Presently we arrived in Paris and promptly got stuck in traffic. I could see several things from the highway that are made famous by French hip hop. I saw Les Cités, the housing projects north of the Arrondissment. I do not know if I saw the famous “93” (or “le neuf-trois”), home to many many many French hip hop artists. I also saw a dozen signs for “St. Denis,” the neighborhood immortalized in the NTM song of the same title.

Once we got off of the freeway, traffic stopped completely. That’s when I started using Mac Stumbler to troll for open wireless connections and was able to post yesterday. We had a five o’clock deadline to meet Vincent Moon, the increasingly famous (or notorious) video director who likes to put bands in strange and incongruous settings and film them playing acoustically or with minimal instrumentation. We found ourselves a few blocks from the club and not moving at all. Keith parked the van and we grabbed a couple of acoustic guitars, a snare drum, some brushes and a tambourine and started walking. (When I say “not moving,” I mean, seriously, stopped completely.) We eventually found the club, met Vincent and went looking for a place to set up. Vincent knows Paris like the back of his hand, and he’s a bit of an idiosyncratic (and very French) artist. We walked up and down alleys while he looked for the perfect location and explained to me how he likes to work. Parker and Daniel followed playing their guitars and singing. We were very much like wandering troubadours or something. Barzin, fellow Monotreme artist, was playing the part of Boby and running boom sound. (Thanks, B.) I would have found this behavior a little obnoxious in Athens, but this was Paris, and Paris is its own thing.

Vincent: I like to walk with the band until I find the perfect spot, then I like for them to start playing the instruments and I film the people’s reactions as they play. In cafés or in the library or something….

Me: That’s interesting. Do you ask permission, usually?

Vincent: What? Why? If I don’t have to? Of course not!

Me: Oh, yes, of course not. Silly me…

Vincent pauses and very thoughtfully considers a shop specializing in mildly erotic postcards from the 1920s and 30s….

Me: That’s a very nice camera… Was it expensive?

Vincent: I don’t know. I borrowed it. I don’t own my own camera.

Me: Oh, of course not….

Vincent is really one-of-a-kind and perfectly French in his approach to his art, I think. We turned a corner in this alley and there before us was the most completely Old French café you could possibly imagine. It was packed with older Parisians who were smoking and drinking and having after-work conversations. Vincent walked in and asked the staff if we could shoot a band from the United States playing a song. Everyone shrugged. Why not? It’s Paris.

Daniel and I set up at the table furthest to the rear- I put the snare drum on an old wooden ladderback chair and put the tambourine on the table top. Daniel stood with his guitar strapped on and Parker had this odd look on his face. I don’t think he was thrilled at the possibility of singing at the top of his lungs in a room full of complete strangers who just seconds before were having their evening repast and cocktails. Everyone but me ordered drinks and somehow a Scotch appeared in front of me. This was fortunate, because I don’t drink and Parker was clearly going to need more than one.

Vincent led Parker out, whilst shouting to Daniel and me “I am going to be following him with the camera and you will start playing when he gets to you. OK, it will be great. YES!”

Parker followed him out on shaky knees and five minutes later, he was back, playing guitar and singing the first verse of “Black Bees” at the top of his lungs. Vincent and Barzin were right behind…

Parker paused for a millisecond at the end of the verse to have a large swallow from one of the glasses on the table, and then we launched into the chorus together. The Parisians in the café watched with a mildly bemused disinterest. It was actually kind of magical, with Vincent swooping around with his camera, all of these worldly and cosmopolitan people watching and Parker singing with a flush in his cheeks and a gleam in his eye- half from the scotch and half from the audacity of what we were doing.

We finished the song, and Vincent wheeled around and marched out the door with the camera rolling. The Parisian Café-goers played their parts perfectly: They went right to being completely uninterested.

Next, Vincent suggested we walk into this very upscale restaurant and start playing. He said to us as we were walking there “This place, the building and the rooms, they are very beautiful, but the people… they are just terrible. They are very mean… So mean… We are not going to ask permission. We are just going to attack.”

“Um…” we said.

“It weel be grreat….” he said.

“Er….” we said.

We walked through the archway to the courtyard and there were large men in ill-fitting tuxedoes who were clearly hired to stand around and prevent EXACTLY the sort of thing we were thinking of doing.

Parker said “Vincent, you see that guy? I can tell he’s going to be the one to break my neck. Look at him.”

“No No, Parker, it will be perfect!”

Parker put his foot down, and we demurred. Interestingly, right across the street, there was another 200 year old arch, this one lit from below by lights recessed into the street. I took the snare drum out of the case, and placed it over one of the lights. The translucent white drumhead diffused the light into this really warm amber glow. Vincent got very excited, we all placed ourselves at good spots under the arches, and we played “Five Ways I Didn’t Die” while more indifferent Parisians walked by. I think that it looked really good.

Next, Vincent led us up the street and said “I ‘ave an idea. You are going to start playing “Dear Flies, Love Spider” and you are going to get on a bus. We will ride for a few stops while you play the song, then we will get off.”

“How much does the bus cost?” I said, digging for Euros in my pocket.

“We will not pay. We will ee-jock the bus.”

“‘EEE-Jock?’ You mean….. HIJACK the bus??”

“Yes. Perfect. It will be here any moment…”

I turned to Daniel and said “OK, what’s the worst that could happen? A couple of hours in jail in Paris? We’ll be fine.”

This didn’t seem to reassure him or Parker.

Parker began to creep away, as if perhaps if he wandered far enough away, he might miss the bus and that might keep him from having to do this. My sense of adventure was really cranked up, though. I called him over. I wasn’t letting him wander off.

We stood there, and I could see Parker’s pulse pounding in his neck. It’s a vulnerable job, singing in a band. Doubly so, doing it with an acoustic guitar, especially when you’re used to playing electric with a big fuck-off amplifier, TRIPLY so when you’re randomly wandering into people’s lives on the streets of Paris, never mind that we’re about to illegally board a bus, completely ignore the driver, place ourselves amidst the other passengers, and then… sing them a little song.

The bus came, we started playing. Vincent was filming. Barzin was recording… The doors opened, we all walked on- I was holding the snare drum and tambourine with one hand and playing them with a brush held in the other. Parker and Daniel were of course playing their acoustics, Vincent was filming, and none of us even looked at the driver as we boarded. I looked over my shoulder, smiled and shrugged at him as we walked down the center aisle and positioned ourselves in the center of the bus. He shrugged and started driving away. Our first hurdle was cleared.

The other passengers were kind of stunned, but they seemed to enjoy the music. We stopped at the first bus stop just in time for the first quiet passage of the song, then into the first chorus as we pulled away. No one had said a thing to us and everyone seemed quite content for us to bang away.

Vincent’s expression was positively lupine with joy when suddenly, he said “OH NO! The BATTERY!! The CAMERA BATTERY!! IT HAS DIED!!”

We stopped playing. Disaster. Vincent’s whole body sagged. It had been going so well. He was heartbroken. We were heartbroken. All that anxiety for nothing. The bus stopped, the doors opened and we got off. We walked back to the club in near-silence.

Once we were back at the club, Vincent went rummaging around in the borrowed camera bag and announced “Oh, look. I have another battery! Let’s film that song, I love that song… let’s just do it here. We can do it here in the club.”

“Oh, no…. ” said Parker. “Let’s go catch a fucking bus…. I ain’t going back to Georgia, telling people this story and then when they say ‘OK, let’s see the footage,’ telling them ‘Oh, the camera died. This dressing room could be anywhere. We could be in Pittsburgh. Fuck that. BRING ME A BUS.'”

Vincent was ambivalent. “I don’t know. Will it work twice? I don’t know…”

Parker wasn’t having it. He’d been through too much to stop now. He marched us back to the bus stop and nearly threw us on a bus.

This time, we got all the way through the song. There were two old French ladies who decided that they were going to sing some traditional French song because they didn’t like what we were doing. Parker noticed this and… SANG LOUDER.

Vincent was zooming around with his camera. I was rapping on my drum and tambourine- Parker and Daniel were nailing the harmonies, and then… the song was over… We all stood there gawking at one another. Vincent seemed even more astonished than we did. The bus doors opened and we tumbled into the street. There was much joy and celebration.

Vincent shouted “I CAN’T BELIEVE IT WORKED!”

Uh, we thought YOU had it under control, dude.


  1. Lisa

    Kai Reidl says hello. Good to see him today. He gave me a big hug and wanted to know how you were liking working with the Low Lows.
    I said, “Uh. Pretty well, I’d say. Nothing bad to report at all in his adventures”
    He said “good, when does he get home? we should get together.”
    I said nonchalantly, “Not sure. the 25th or so”
    He smiled and said contentedly “Well, that’s good, too.”
    We LOVE you, stateside. Have wonderful shows, we’re all so excited about your travels. Gather up your stories, we can’t wait to hear them.
    The Mrs.

  2. Tom Brink

    These community gardens are allotments, which provided a vital source of fruit & veg to poorer city dwellers, especially during the war. Unfortunately they are slowly disappearing (rising property prices). Plus acid rain doesn’t make a great fertilizer.

    more on wikipedia – allotments

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