31 August was the last day of Germany’s 9-Euro Ticket scheme that gave everyone in the country free nationwide public transport for three months. If I was patient, I could get to the Lucy Dacus show I was opening in Cologne for more or less free. So of course I did. 9 hours of intersecting local transportation networks later, I was there. I took a Covid test, found the backstage area, started setting up my music stuff and making a set list, and that was that — jumping off a cliff into my first public transportation tour since the pandemic — my first long-form solo trip.
I have been very lucky to have been asked to share the road with many friends over the years. I’m always grateful to ride in their vans, to stay in hotels with them, to open for them in front of guaranteed huge crowds every night. The bond that forms between musicians who share touring life together is among the strongest and fastest humans can form. I’m writing this from Amsterdam Centraal, and last time I was here it was after just such friends a group of friends brought me along tour with them and gave me one of the most fun times I’ve ever had as a musician. That would not have happened alone; you need friendship for moments like that. I need that too and I’ll travel with friends in bands for as long as I’m lucky enough to be able to do it.
But traveling in the world, solo, hyper-exposed to its horror and beauty, probably often dehydrated and underfed…this is how I started making art, and this is where I’m happiest. Throwing my bag on the luggage rack and getting out the laptop and beat machines to compose looking at the landscape while a baby screams and a kid plays Candy Crush too loudly, getting off the train in predator mode, tracking down the show in a squat or a de-consecrated church or some guy’s dad’s pool supply warehouse.
It’s easy to miss the wildness when you’re in a group. When I’m traveling with people I know and love, we’re in a bubble. This is a ton of fun. And it’s very different than sharing trains and buses with people in general, as a group. When traveling solo, I’m merged not with my cohorts but with the public, an abstract mass consciousness, grumpy and alert and intent on going somewhere. I’m deeply alone most of the time, alone in a crowd, alone just like everyone else, and therefore paradoxically never less alone. It’s also a reminder that the art form I chose is, to the vast majority of those people with whom I share a wordless journey, inscrutable. (This is probably true for all participants in subcultures, not just obscure indie pop acts.) I am alone, experiencing a kind of group alienation that subcultures are built precisely to paper over and which therefore I cannot access in a van with friends. “Let’s create an intentional society in which everyone values X” is empowering for members of the subculture that values X, and it’s not something we should stop of course. More subcultures, more vans, more and deeper intentional niche communities! But we should remember about the rest of the world too, not just in our jobs or political acts but when making and consuming our art. For we who make and consume owe it to the societies we serve to remind ourselves that they will likely never ever hear what we do, and if they did hear it they’d probably dislike it — and yet, the work we do must nevertheless hold sufficient value to be worth our exclusive focus, such that their children or their children’s children will hear the world of our time represented in our work, their forebears visible in it even if they could not participate actively in the work’s creation. We must remember that subcultures are veins of specific and rare ore, surrounded by common rocks. What we make must be of sufficient value to be worth mining.
And that’s true even for some of the larger bands in our various subcultures. The biggest band you’re a fan of is probably something 99% of people around you in an average train station have never even heard of, let alone like. And yet we as participants in subcultures owe these people too — we must document them, serve them, tell their stories as well. Subcultures cannot just sing about themselves, and that’s what we do when we never leave our milieu.
That’s why I’ll always tour this way too when I can, no matter how lucky I get with great friends bringing me along for the ride.