The award-winning 59 Productions - the visionary show designers behind West End and Broadway productions like War Horse - teamed up with Fink to design a custom-made lighting and projection installation and set for his Autumn tour. Fink drummer, Tim Thornton, penned us a little tour diary detailing their adventures and near death experience...
"Midnight in an Austrian forest. Follow Gütlestrasse along the Dornbirner stream as it torrents through the chilly November night towards the famous Rappenlochschlucht gorge, where grown men are known to have perished with only the memory of their last beer and schnitzel inside them, round the corner where the forest roof thickens to an eerie void just a handful of miles from the Swiss border, and your headlights might be surprised to illuminate the sight of a rather pissed-off looking British indie band, pulling and shoving indecorously at their trailer of gear as they attempt to reconnect the damn thing with the back of their tour bus before it careers down the slope into the ravine, possibly taking one or two of the weaker members with it.
It wasn’t meant to end this way. We’d finished, around an hour ago, a decent gig (in a nearby barn: so cold we actually considered playing in our coats, but hey, the dressing room had it’s own beer tap – welcome to Austria). We’d accepted that our bus couldn’t make it across the narrow bridge to the venue, and were quite happy to rise from our post-show drinks and help the mountain come to Mohammed. We even weren’t too fussed that the ‘team of heavies’ we’d been promised to assist with the task ended up being just one of the friendlier stage hands and his pretty but useless girlfriend (both of whom sodded off as soon as they realised what the precise task entailed). But a flimsy looking handbrake being the only thing between us and the gravity of a steep valley slope and a few metric tonnes of steel and industrial plastic? Uh-uh. We’re 39 shows in to the tour, only ten to go, the remainder including such jewels in the rock’n’roll firmament as Vienna, Warsaw, Munich and, um, Massy. We all have wives. Two of us have children. And most importantly, our agent would be rather cross. Dying now would be bad, particularly in a freezing river under the weight of a flightcase of IKEA Anglepoise lamps.
The situation intensifies when our lighting chief (at the front of the trailer, controlling the handbrake with one hand, puffing nonchalantly on a copious joint with the other) brushes aside an order from our tour manager (inside the trailer, desperately trying to stop all the flight cases from rolling out) to cease operations and, prudently, empty the container. ‘THE CASES ARE MOVING!’ the TM screams, in a voice that sounds a little more like John Sweeney in that Scientology documentary than he perhaps intended. ‘WE NEED TO GET THEM OUT!’ As if to punctuate such a dramatic edict, all the metal lighting frames spontaneously collapse on top of him.
So we stop and spend a somewhat plodding ten minutes extracting the contents of our trailer before resuming our mission with most, if not all, of the danger gone. I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed. As our TM puts it, it’s just another glorious day on the tour.
We’re not the first band to go on a 49-date tour. Longer tours, with more hair-raising itineraries, are commonplace. Guns N’ Roses’ early-nineties Use Your Illusion caper lasted the better part of three years (no wonder all the band left and their singer’s been reduced to a gibbering buffoon). But we’ve made a lot of noise about this as it’s the longest trip – by a multiple of at least three – Fink have ever undertaken, and definitely the first time we’ve used as our vessel a nightliner ‘rock’ tour bus.
Usually we’re quite accustomed to jumping in a splitter van and speeding straight off to the Channel Tunnel, driving ourselves (venue staff who anticipate our lead singer Fin ‘Fink’ Greenall being an enigmatic rock-star type have often been puzzled to find our vehicle pulling up with Fin himself at the wheel, trying to reverse into a miniscule gap next to the load-in door). But for this tour we’ve gone a bit nuts, forking out armfuls of cash on a stage set by a fancy visual company, 59 Productions (they of War Horse and Jónsi fame). We met them, talked it all through, then they zoomed off to some railway arch in Leeds and didn’t emerge until they’d built a totally bonkers pile of metal frames to which they screwed forty-eight of the aforementioned IKEA lamps (a structure which we quickly christened ‘Lamposaurus’), augmented by eight gauze screens on which custom-made film pieces are projected for each song. Bloody hell. We told them it had to all fit into two flightcases, and it does. Plus another two. Or three. Anyhow, self-driven splitter vans are now quite out of the question so, on our fourth album and with all of us over the age of, ahem, twenty-five, we board a rock’n’roll sleeper vehicle for the very first time with more than a sprinkle of cynicism.
A tour bus is a bit like the Tardis. You get into the bus, have a few beers, play a few computer games and go to sleep; next time you emerge you’re in a different city or even country with next to no knowledge of how you got there. The Tardis travels time, and in a way so does the bus: time speeds up uncontrollably when you’re onboard, you might think you’ll have time to explore Zurich when the bus arrives, but before you know it it’s 2pm and you’ve got to start carrying shit inside the venue. The Tardis – or at least, the Tardis I remember from the Peter Davison episodes – frequently breaks down; and so did our bus, a hundred kilometres outside Prague (although our driver, genius that he is, at least managed to break down at a service station. With free wifi). Sadly the key area in which the tour bus differs from that venerable Doctor Who craft is that it’s definitely not bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. If anything, it’s a lot smaller, particularly around 10am when everyone has awoken and is simultaneously trying to make coffee. Moving around the living areas at these times requires a sort of human form of those sliding tile puzzles: if you want to get to the sink, the person who is currently at the sink has to move down the steps to the loo; or he could go into the sleeping area, but if someone’s coming out of the sleeping area he has to stick to his original loo plan. Oh wait, but now someone’s coming out of the loo and instead he has to stand by the coffee machine, but the guy who came out of the sleeping area only did so ‘cos he wanted to make coffee. Within seconds, the whole thing gridlocks. Such situations can take bewildering amounts of time to untangle.
At the head of the whole thing, or at least that’s what one hopes, is the driver. Ours is a nice chap and a great craftsman when it comes to twisting his bus around bits of Cologne. But what a life. We must be, perhaps, toward the easier end of the band spectrum: relatively quiet and considerate, not too excessive but not total fusspots. But who knows, maybe he prefers crack-smoking metalheads who a least furnish him with decent anecdotes and hard drugs when he needs them. I expect the worst of the lot are newly signed teenagers, puking everywhere, barely able to wipe their own arses and quick to develop disproportionately arrogant personality traits. Amid all the tired old rock’n’roll stories, those of tour bus drivers driven to physical violence by snotty little indie popsters would be definitely worth hearing.
Fink, of course, are far too old to be disproportionately arrogant. All our arrogance is perfectly sized and well-timed, and on this tour there have been more than a few opportunities to use it. It’s amazing and humbling to play a place like Amsterdam’s Paradiso, or La Cigale in Paris, sell the bastard out and be greeted like – well, rock stars, before you’ve even played a note. But for every bona fide corker of a gig, there’s what we call a ‘random’; a show which you’ve no idea will be any good or not until you’ve finished. The day after the big Amsterdam show we appear at an indoor festival in Belgium, in what appears to be a converted prison. The room containing the festival stage is about twice the size of Brixton Academy; one of the other bands has actually driven their entire bus inside it (damn, why didn’t we think of that?). Relaxing beforehand in a dressing room of almost communist sparsity, we note with concern that the festival has pre-sold fifty tickets: and that’s for the whole event, not just our appearance. Kicking off with a very strange electronic druggy retro band who seem like something straight out of Mighty Boosh, the evening proceeds slowly, and with each act our concerns deepen and the bottles of Jupiler steadily disappear as nondescript Francophone indie music continues to rattle around the vast hall until, finally, our turn comes.
You’ve got two options at this juncture. Either you go out, play very nicely and studiously as if the audience weren’t there and it’s actually a radio session or something, and hope for the best. Or you hurl yourselves onstage, play everything as hard and fast as would remain recognisably your band, sneer a lot and behave generally as if you own the place. We go for the latter choice. There is one problem. We are, broadly speaking, an acoustic band. Fin plays an acoustic guitar and sings mostly in a husky, bluesy style. I, the drummer, use mostly brushes. Guy the bass player has a handsome electric instrument, but it is a bass, after all. He has limited rock’n’roll destruction at his disposal, unless he wants to come on like an alt-folk Flea. But we try not to let these things bother us. It’s at this point that the length of our tour swings in our favour. This is our twenty-third gig in a row: even when we’re crap, we’re good. We plough through the loudest tracks we possess, I go through about three pairs of exploding plastic brushes, Fin attacks his nylon-stringed guitar so ferociously it’ll be about three gigs before it recovers, and every time he stops singing he slams on his effects pedals and we briefly turn into LCD Soundsystem before it’s time for him to sing again. It may sound like I’m making this up, but suddenly – and amazingly – an audience appears. Three hundred of the tardy so-and-sos breeze in from God knows where and we have a show on our hands. I repeat my nightly trick of introducing one of the tracks in my faltering GCSE Franglais (“la prochaine chanson est de l’album “Distance et Time”,’ which never fails to get a belly-laugh from our TM offstage), Fin loudly admits to having smoked something lethal before going on, we blast out a near thrash-metal version of ‘Sort of Revolution’, and our work is done. It’s back on the bus, just in time to be kept awake all night by a bad indie disco. Another glorious day on the tour indeed.
But these so-called ‘randoms’ are actually what makes the tour. In a way it’s a shame, but what one remembers after a tour of any size are the odd predicaments, the crazy situations, the screw-ups, the recurring tedium. I can’t honestly remember what it felt like to walk offstage at the end of our sold-out show at London’s Union Chapel, but I can remember what it was like to wait in a Barcelona truck park for three hours while our gear got ferried to the venue over four journeys in a people carrier with the seats removed. I don’t recall the most triumphant, tribal ending of ‘This Is The Thing’ we managed, but I can remember every wretched time I misfired my loopstation pedal during ‘Fear Is Like Fire’, leaving my fellow-musicians suspended in an indefinite musical rest. Similarly, the friendly and efficient local techies we encountered tend to fade in the mind, but all the useless bastards – that strange Emo guy who did literally nothing for seven hours but whom the promoters tried to charge us two hundred Euros for; the venue with a team of unioned-up jobsworths who refused to lift a finger for a task unless it had been requested in writing two months ago – these memories somehow remain.
A couple of weeks before the tour, our manager asked me which bit of the trip I was looking forward to the most. He was probably expecting me to say one of the big capital city shows, or maybe the day off in Vienna or Rome. I thought about it for a minute, then admitted that I was really looking forward to finding out how I felt between, say, Poznan and Leipzig, gigs 45 and 46 respectively, far away – physically and spiritually – from home, with that many shows behind us, that many nights asleep in a moving vehicle, that many mornings on which I had to rinse my mouth with sparkling water after cleaning my teeth. And how, in the end, did I feel? In most respects I was knackered, frustrated, homesick, sick of the bus toilet, bored of having to shower in the venue, missing being able to make myself a proper cup of tea in the morning, tired of lugging boxes and cases to and from the trailer. But – and forgive me for sentimentality here – in terms of playing music for ninety minutes each night to those wonderful audiences: twenty-thousand people in total, all of whom had decided that seeing Fink was what they wanted to do with their evening, I could quite seriously have carried on for a lot longer. It really is true that the crowds recharge your passion and enthusiasm batteries, at least until the next night. Anyway, it’s over now; then we’re off again in February. Can’t wait. Sort of."
All photographs by Tommy N Lance.