Having drummed for South London’s finest – the likes of Fat White Family, Misty Miller, Zulu and Phobophobes – last year Dan Lyons went solo (premiering his debut single exclusively with HERO).
On a mission to spread his music far and wide, this month the Margate-based musician swapped England’s Kent coast for America’s west to play Austin, Texas’ renowned SXSW festival. Along the way, Lyons penned his adventures for a special three-part diary.
Premiering below, part one sees Lyons set off on his US journey. First stop: sun-kissed LA – “where dreams are made… and nightmares vacuum packed, boxed and sold to the highest bidder (plus tax).”
An English nobody in the land of the free: Part One – Los Angeles
By Dan Lyons
I was asked to play SXSW in December 2017, a confusing and exciting proposition, as I’ve only been performing and writing under my own name for the best part of a year. It’s taken quite a lot to get myself together, to muster the confidence to play at the front, and in front of people. There have been numerous recording sessions, rehearsals, and the odd gig here and there throughout the time I’ve spent being the drummer (and whipping boy) for numerous bands over the years, but this time I decided to do things properly.
The inevitable case of sod’s law arose just minutes after I got the email. Phobophobes had a short tour booked for March and the dates clashed. I got on the phone to the singer, Jamie, and told him the news. It was decided that a dep drummer was to be used for the first string of dates, and that I would fly home to pick up the sticks at Guildford on the 21st March after SXSW, and finish the rest of the tour.
So, feeling a mixture of guilt and pleasure (always a peculiar combination – we all know it), I set about wondering how I was going to raise the money to get over to America. I knew that PRS (Performing Rights Society) dished out a bit each year to support bands from the UK, so they were my first port of call. After lots of paperwork, and a long anxious wait, they said they’d give us half of what we needed. We crowd funded the rest via a Pledge music campaign and generous donations from family, and booked the flights.
Passing Sid*, who lives in a tent outside the police station in Margate, we started the drive to Heathrow. We left in the snow. Biting cold and windy. Our flat is a stones throw from the beach and the North Sea, and the feeling from the wind that whips up across that big blue plateau and into the our street is something only people that know, know. It was the first time I’d been awake that early in a long time, and despite being low on caffeine, I felt good. We were heading to the United States of America. That sprawling, bountiful land where dreams are made. And nightmares vacuum packed, boxed and sold to the highest bidder (plus tax).
“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!”
― John Fante
We flew to Los Angeles to meet up with Sam, our drummer for this string of dates, to acclimatise and rehearse the set. By some stroke of luck, he was already set up and living in the States with Sai, his partner, who was working as an actor, filming T.V shows for pilot season. He met us at LAX in a car that looked like Kit from Nightrider. Jet lagged and gracious, the first thing I noticed about LA was the light. Everything is steeped in this cinematic haze, smoggy rays of technicolor and giant advertisements for lawyers and doctors shimmered in the dusty sunshine. Motorways that are wider than football pitches wind through and across each other like an orgy of tapeworms.
I had been rather anxious about flying. But everything was fine, we were safe, and driving towards The Rainbow on Sunset Strip to pay homage to the ghost of Lemmy Kilmister. After a lethally strong IPA for Sam and I, and an even stronger Southern Comfort and lemonade for Freya, we set off to Highland Park to check in to our AirBnb, a nineteen fifty eight Cadillac Camper van in the back garden of a prop maker named Mark. It was the cheapest thing in the whole of LA, and we had no idea what the area was like…
Walking along Figueroa Street, the smaller of two main drags in Highland Park, York boulevard being the other, we noticed a slight whiff of gentrification, coffee shops and bespoke book shops squashed between Mexican greengrocers and dry cleaners. It really is sweeping across the entire world. I’m used to it in England, most recently in Margate, where we moved a year ago to escape London.
It’s difficult to know where to stand in my opinion of the whole thing, I suppose there are varying degrees of severity. A locally owned cafe prospering from an influx of newcomers is a whole different kettle of fish compared to the most recent advertising campaign by a certain estate agent, which depicts a UFO abducting people from their office blocks in the city of London and dropping them off (after financial probing) in the ‘up & coming seaside town’ of Margate. All the while screaming in caps locks about how house prices are at an “ALL TIME HIGH”. We are undoubtably part of the problem, but being born in Kent, I suppose I am a local, sort of. And I’m allowed to be annoyed.
We were just talking about the strange comparison between the town we live in and this small LA neighbourhood when we passed Artform Studios, a record shop which doubles as a hair salon and cafe. Inside, deep in conversation with the owner, was Spencer Hickman, who runs Transmission Records in Margate. They too were talking about Margate. Serendipity is a strange thing.
Outside Mark’s house were three VW camper vans and a strange motorised tricycle with a see through plastic domed roof, under which the rider was required to drive and steer lying down on his or her front. It was set to feature in the Sci-Fi film Mark was writing and producing for his production company ‘Find Art Films’. We stumbled through a sliding gate with our suitcases and entered the back yard. The garage was full of bits of scrap metal and odd looking machinery, there were two 80’s Porches in varying degrees of rehabilitation on breeze blocks, these were surrounded by eerie mannequins, face masks, and an orange tree from which were hanging bunches of plastic grapes. Birds make strange sounds over there, some of their calls start quietly, are long, and end abruptly. Others are stuttered and sound like they’re laughing at you. Mockingbirds.
The Cadillac is a permanent fixture in the yard, the tyres are flat, and the inside hasn’t changed at all since it came off the production line in the fifties, apart from a few knocks and scrapes. Pastel greens and pinks, and the Cadillac logo embroidered into everything. There is a small hob, a sink, a toilet, shower, dining table, bed, wardrobe and a TV, all within about 20 square feet of trailer. It was advertised as cozy, and cozy it was. The bed was situated above the drivers cab and was only about 2 and a half feet in height. I suffer from serious bouts of sleep paralysis, and very bad dreams. It made bolting upright in the middle of the morning extremely hazardous, but it felt like home. We got into bed and slept, fairly well, excited for the next day.
Checking guitars onto flights is an expensive business, and wasn’t an option on our budget. Luckily, David Bower, who runs Gibson in the UK happens to be a not so distant relation and came to the rescue. He agreed to loan us an electric, an acoustic and a bass guitar for the duration of our trip.
If you had told me when I was fifteen years old that at twenty eight I would be at the Gibson showroom in Los Angeles, taking my pick of guitars for a string of dates at an internationally renowned festival in Austin, Texas, I wouldn’t have believed you. The truth was that when I got there I really did feel like a ‘kid’ at the proverbial sweetshop, I tried to play it cool but ended up just sort of muttering and changing my mind every 5 seconds about which guitar I liked best. They were very accommodating, and they had a fridge full of freezing cold drinks which we made good use of. We asked Todd, who seemed to be running the place, whether he knew of any good rehearsal spots in the city, and he offered us the use of one of the rooms there for the whole week. We were set!
“Los Angeles gives one the feeling of the future more strongly than any city I know of. A bad future, too, like something out of Fritz Lang’s feeble imagination.” – Henry Miller
There’s this laid back attitude that seeps into everything in LA, maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the weed doctors on every other block, or the unending desire to make sure that one doesn’t come across as uptight. It’s like you’re looking down a long, straight road, infinitely blue skies, no traffic, nothing in the way, but either side lies this heavy, saturated block headed consumerism. Perhaps it’s the sheer geographical size of the place, but for some reason it doesn’t really swamp and sicken me as much as that sort of thing does in London. Perhaps it was just that I was a tourist, in a strange new place, with great aspirations. Or perhaps I was just used to it already.
Everything there is so incredibly familiar but intrinsically different. Things like traffic lights, stop signs, sidewalks. In the UK, we are dragged up surrounded by Americana. Friends was on the TV every day when I was young, children have birthday parties at McDonalds, we do our shopping at malls. It gave me a strange feeling that I had been there before. Everyone is polite. Eerily polite. The cars are bigger because the roads are bigger and at every bar or restaurant there’s the unspoken rule that one has to tip. Because it’s only polite.
LA is famous for being a place that people come to to become famous, or renowned, or recognised. And although permeated with ‘creative’ types – we met at least a dozen writers, photographers and wannabe record label A&R’s just taking taxis – one can’t help but feel that the reasons behind the majority of these people’s ambitions are of a distinctly shallow nature. Not to say that their desires aren’t pure, maybe I’m just being cynical, but it just feels like they have a serious case of money on the brain.
We spent a few days adjusting to the heat, and the atmosphere. I nearly had a panic attack in a supermarket called ‘Food4Less’ in Highland Park, but regained a basic level of functionality after eating a quesadilla I cooked on the stove in the Caddyshack. The Mexican food out there is incredible. Taco trucks arrive on street corners as the sun comes down, and you can get tacos for a dollar each. The salsa verde was my favourite thing about those places, and the tortilla wraps, and the beans, and the Oaxaca cheese that comes in long thick strips. Oh, and the sour cream. As the trip continued, we would eat little but Mexican cuisine.
The next day, after rehearsals, we made our way to Laurel Canyon, once home to Jim Morrison and Frank Zappa amongst many others. On Sam’s recommendation we stopped off at the Laurel Canyon County Store, where the rock stars of yore reportedly bought their booze and cigarettes. I bought the only pouch of rolling tobacco available, American Spirit ‘Organic’, which was as dry and as flammable as everything else in that town. Back to the straights…
Afterwards we drove along Mulholland – which Freya had been desperate to see having recently developed a serious Lynch obsession and up to a viewing point where we could see the Hollywood sign. I learned that it had originally read “Hollywoodland”. It was intended as an advertising prop to promote a local housing complex of the same name, but by the seventies had fallen into disrepair. Hugh Hefner, Alice Cooper and friends all rallied together to save the sign and recognised it as an iconic erection that deserved to stay put, each member of this group of Hollywoodites paid twenty seven thousand dollars to restore their assigned letter…
The jet lag we were warned and worried about actually proved quite useful in the end, we are usually quite late risers. The morning after the flight we were up at five am, the next day six and so on. The day after Laurel Canyon and the Hollywood sign, we decided to board the much moaned about Los Angeles Metro all the way down to Santa Monica pier on the gold line, from where we could walk along the coast to Venice Beach. The train was on time, and easy, thanks to a Highland Park local insisting that he escort us all the way there just to make sure we didn’t get confused and lost.
The Pacific is a different beast to the North Sea. It glimmers, glitters and swells in a slower, more assured way. It’s blue is brighter, and the waves larger. The gulls are much the same. Santa Monica pier is a tourist trap, full of ‘Bubba Gump Shrimp’ and expensive “I <3 LA” t shirts. But it is a beautiful thing, and old, for America. We wondered along the concrete path that snakes along the beach, passing groups of shirtless men swinging from exercise apparatus and pretending not to be competitive whilst their girlfriends took photographs and tanned. We met a woman from Germany who makes the walk from Santa Monica to Venice once a week, she made us feel calm.
We weren’t ready for the heat. I burn very easily, almost instantly, and the temperature was thirty one or two degrees Celsius. I had a handkerchief over my face. It was the first time since landing that I felt intrinsically and awkwardly British. Passing a few expensive cafe’s and tall buildings that lined the edge of the beach we found ourselves at the beginning of the boardwalk. Another serious case of that deja vu – I had been here before, seen the benches and the shops somewhere. I eventually realised that I had, from the comfort of my living room, whilst playing Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2.
It was here where the caricatured, pop up book version of America really came into full view. A smorgasbord of people from different places, tourists, merchants selling those little wire statues and beanbags with smily faces. Businessmen on vacation and on the phone, breakdancers and weed smokers. Musclemen glistened in the sun and batted no lashes when I approached to photograph their daily workout, they were already photographing themselves. There was an overall absurdity and ridiculousness to the place that made me feel extremely dazed and confused. Every cliché and niche in the book was in full glorious view. A man stood playing guitar whilst two other men stared him in the eyes intimidatingly and then burst into applause whilst homeless people found shade under the palms.
I bought two pairs of sunglasses from a little shop along the boardwalk, some small thin ones with pink reflective lenses and a replacement pair of big chunky white Kurt Cobain ones that Freya quickly adopted as her own. She was carrying two coats and the pockets were full of things, they were annoying her so we went to find a bag somewhere and take a break from the heat. I hadn’t realised beforehand, but Venice was actually partly modelled on it’s Italian namesake, and has a series of canals that are lined with houses and have cute little bridges. That part was calmer, prettier and was home to a house that was covered in spray painted dogs.
Abbot-Kinney Boulevard is a long stretch of shops that look bohemian and cool from the outside – and was once probably exactly that – but on closer inspection is actually the epitome of gentrified misery. It made me realise that Highland Park isn’t really tainted at all, at least there most of the new businesses and coffee shops have kept the community very much in mind, and are tasteful, and the record shops are amazing too. Here in Venice lay Smashbox, Adidas, and those high-end designer boutiques that disguise themselves as vintage shops. There was a nice Vegan place there which wasn’t too expensive so we had a Kale Burger and got in a taxi Downtown to meet our friend Kate.
After a few Margaritas Downtown we got in a taxi and went bowling at the Highland Park Bowl, a huge old alley in the middle of our now much appreciated neighbourhood. I came in at a close second place and we ended up back at our digs with Kate and Pollo, a professional skateboarder from Mexico.
The next day we met up with Justin Maurer, who was introduced to me online by my old friend Jack Everett. Justin is a stalwart of the Los Angeles punk scene, currently playing in ‘MANIAC’ and ‘L.A Drugz’, he spent many years playing and writing songs for his band ‘Clorox Girls’, who provided the soundtrack to many hazy nights spent in Peckham when I was sharing a house with the first band I joined when I moved to London. I had heard lots of stories about Justin. The Saudis (as they were called then) met him in town whilst the Clorox Girls were on a tour of the UK. Justin told me on the drive from Highland Park that he was actually enlisted as driver on the last Fat Whites tour of the U.S that took place just weeks after I was thrown out of the band in 2014. I’m glad that we met now instead of then, things are clearer. But, it had started to rain. For the first time in 4 months.
With Luna, Justin’s Chihuahua on our laps, and the radio on, we sped down the expressway towards San Pedro and spent the journey talking about people we knew, and Justin’s day job as a sign language interpreter. We asked him if he would mind us jumping on the bill for the MANIAC/ Scott Yoder gig that evening, he said yes. We had originally planned to book a string of dates in California before the drive to SXSW, but finding a willing American booking agent when you don’t even have one in the UK is a tough job. We were very grateful for the chance to play.
After a hearty Mexican meal (best of the trip…) we left Justin to his rehearsal, and took Luna with us to Long Beach in search of cheap clothes. We found the ‘AIDS Assistance Thrift Store’, and I picked up a vintage Levi’s suit and 5 shirts for $20, much more like it… I bought Freya some cool earrings too. We headed over to Justin’s friend Caesar’s house in San Pedro for Tequila. Of which an entire bottle was consumed in the hour before we left for the Alhambra Cocktail Lounge, where the gig was to take place.
Charles Bukowski spent the later part of his life in San Pedro. It has the feeling of a town at the end of the universe, strangely quiet, but not calm. You can just imagine him there. There’s a restlessness that is apparent, a tension and abruptness. Almost immediately we were jumped on by a man in his forties or fifties who had heard our accents and bore a striking resemblance to the poet himself. All leather faced and bearded with dark eyes that really stared when they wanted to. He spoke in the exact same tone of voice I imagine Bukowski had. All gravelled and husky, but strong and thick at the same time.
“I like the English, the English saved me from a couple bad hair days in my time. Iraq, Afghanistan, bad hair days…” he said, before lighting a cigarette, grunting softly, and adding “Bad hair days.”
Hungover but hopeful, we woke up to the sunrise and set off to collect Jeremy, bass player – and a giant red SUV – from LAX. Saying goodbye to LA was more difficult than I had imagined. A lot of the place is plastic. But its vastness and ability to transform from one day to another left me feeling excited and optimistic. As if for the first time in a while, I had actually allowed myself to accept things for what they are, and not to judge too much.
We headed out on the I-10 and into the horizon. We had a grand total of thirty six hours until our first gig, and Austin was nearly one thousand four hundred miles away, a twenty one hour drive…
“Old elephants limp off to the hills to die; old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death with huge cars.” – Hunter S Thompson
*(Sid is a man that Thanet Council applauded and rewarded with a one bedroom flat after he apprehended a man who was in the process of robbing an elderly woman on the High Street, but had his home taken away after he was unable to cope with the transition from living on the street to being a tenant. He was not offered any support. You can still find Sid outside the police station, in his tent.)