It’s been a very long day and the urge to sleep has descended over me like a fog. Attempting to nestle comfortably across one and a half seats of this heavily adorned and personalised van (wittily christened ‘Gloria Estevan’) is proving difficult. We’re somewhere on the outskirts of Utrecht, or at least I think we are … after 6 days of criss-crossing through various borders in Western Europe, it’s difficult to tell. The industrial estate that inexplicably houses quite probably one of the strangest nightclubs in the whole of Europe is so non-descript, we could frankly be anywhere in the world. I attempt to doze, with little success, and pray that the good Samaritan who’s offered us shelter for the night is true to his word and decides to turn up; at 31, I’m far too old to be sleeping in the back of a van, however beautifully embellished with fairy lights it may be.
I’d left the aforementioned nightclub when the combination of continental-strength lager and erratic DJ song choices (Smells Like Teen Spirit into Stop! In the Name of Love!!??) discombobulated me to such an extent that a lie down seemed to be the wisest course of action to rest my sleep-deprived, slightly inebriated body. Lying here amongst the detritus of pilfered beer and food from the ever-so-generous European riders, all is quiet, bar the gentle snoring of our designated driver and the deadened muddied electro thump thump thump of what sounds like Kraftwerk.
The (relatively) peaceful reverie is shattered by the sound of a vehicle moving toward us at a very high speed. As it approaches, howls of delight and whoops of joy can be heard just above the din of the spluttering engine. Jolted by this rude awakening, I raise one eye-lid, a move that requires roughly ten times the brain processing power as it would were I not so cold, tired and drunk, and gently turn my head towards the approaching commotion. As the vehicle, now just about discernible as a small 9-seater van, comes hurtling past us, Gloria croaks, as she’s rocked from side-to-side on her creaking suspension. The offending van screeches to a halt, to the cheer of its occupants, and I crane my neck to get a better view of the kerfuffle that has disturbed me from my semi-slumber.
The door slides back and through hazed eyes, I see around 20 people stumble out on to the street, most of whom are in various stages of intoxication. A crate of beer is produced, as it so often is in these situations, and the merry throng proceed to hurl 24 green bottles of amber nectar against the nightclub’s walls, braying with delight as each bottle bursts in a sea of foam and glass. Without moving an inch, our designated driver croaks, ‘That’ll be John Coffey then.’ Before I’ve had a chance to ask ‘That’ll be who?’ the door to our van abruptly opens and a member of our party cheerfully announces ‘Our hotel’s here!’
This is touring the continent Heck-style. A DIY operation in every conceivable way, the band rely on the kindness of those they meet on the road, past and present, to put them up between shows and long drives across Europe’s vast expanses. It’s a pretty common practise within the underground music scene, where margins are tight, outgoings are large and earnings are scant. Tonight, our host is Moss Lieveld, driver for the Dutch punk rock, post-hardcore quintet John Coffey, who are currently at the tail end of a victory lap around Europe on their last ever tour. Moss is in a band himself, the experimental jazz-hardcore hybrid Mary Fields, and frequently allows bands to crash at his cosy apartment, in the hope that karma will deal him a good hand when his band are on tour and needing a place to stay. It’s a good arrangement in principal and intrinsically linked to the core values of punk, a community of like-minded individuals across the globe who help each other out when they need it.
The Black Peaks style is slightly more conventional and also more conducive to guaranteeing a decent night’s sleep, staying as they do in a series of motels or Air Bnb accommodations of varying different qualities. One might assume that being on a record label in partnership with Sony Music would give the band the luxury to throw money around with gleeful abandon, but the realities of touring life circa 2016 are far removed from the stories you may have read in the NME or Kerrang! as a teenager. Consequently, every penny must be miserly accounted for, the band living on just 10 euros a day each, and unless merch sales go through the roof, chances are they’ll only just break even on this run. Any ideas I may have had of seeing the gluttonous, salacious side of touring excess that I’d been reading about all my life in Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses biographies would obviously not be a part of this tour … or so I thought. We’d yet to reach Germany.
If sex sells, then the 1km strip of neon-drenched XXX-cess that makes up Hamburg’s Reeperbahn must surely account for half the city’s income. Lust fills the loins of the liquored up tourists, the bulge in their £150 sweatshop-manufactured designer jeans making them walk like wounded animals. The scent of money fills the nostrils of the glammed-up, panda-eyed women with their beckoning fingers and siren smiles. Their business is sex and business is good; it always is on the Reeperbahn. The locals pay no mind or euro; this is a regular scene on what is commonly referred to as ‘die sündigste Meile’ or ‘the most sinful mile.’ As music and sex are so inextricably linked, the street also provides the setting for the annual ‘Reeperbahn Festival, a 4-day festival that takes over the assorted venues and clubs that line the length and breadth of the strip and hosts an eclectic bill of rock, pop, hip-hop, soul, jazz, folk electro and neo-classical.
At the furthest western end of the Reeperbahn sits the Molotow, a contradictorily tall yet hidden building nestled amongst the colourful neon signs pointing towards sex shows and dancing girls. Both bands are set to play this venue tonight, with Black Peaks occupying the deliriously titled ‘Sky-bar’ (in reality, about 4 stories high and dwarfed by the buildings surrounding it) whilst Heck are squirreled away to the basement room known as the Karatekeller, literally translated as ‘Karate cellar’. A more appropriate name however, may have been ‘Besenschrank’ or ‘Broom Cupboard’, as the room the band play in fits the exact required dimensions to store half a dozen household mops.
Heck are at their most dangerous and invigorating in these environments and somehow manage to condense the energy of a supernovae into the small confines of a microwave. Wide-eyed, panic-stricken Germans scarper, hugging themselves as close to the walls as humanely possible as Heck proceed to do what Heck do and tear the tiny room apart. It’s a glorious, sweaty, mess, the kind of punk show you’d normally read about in zines rather than on the website of a British national ex-newspaper, and it feels absolutely vital, especially compared to the watered down, pale imitators that are currently infiltrating the rock scene posing as something authentic. The hundred or so Germans cramped together in this tiny broom cupboard seem to agree.
Upstairs, Black Peaks are doing just as much for international relations with our Germanic brethren; half an hour before doors, the queue snakes all the way down several flights of stairs and once the doors open, the room fills to capacity within minutes. That they’ve managed to create this sort of buzz in a country where debut album Statues hasn’t even officially been released yet is nothing short of miraculous. Unlike countless bands that ride into town on a cloud of pomp and hype, Black Peaks not only live up to but surpass the expectations of most of those lucky enough to be in attendance; looks of disbelief are exchanged between several members of the crowd as the power of the band’s sound hits like a direct punch to the jaw. Watching shows like this, it’s easy to see why Black Peaks have had such an astonishing year; the fact they’re able to mix elements of Mastodon, Tool, Oceansize and The Dillinger Escape Plan all together whilst retaining their own sense of identity is truly astonishing, especially for a band so young. If the momentum they’re building continues to grow, they have every chance of being contemporaries with their influences as opposed to merely looking up to them.
Once both bands have finished dazzling the Reeperbahn, it’s time to load out and move on; whilst it’s tempting to stay and gorge on the sinful fruits this wicked metropolis has to offer, a 500km drive to our next destination dictates that we must get back on the road with haste.
They say hell is being locked in a room with your friends; well, touring is being locked in a van with your friends. There’s another saying prevalent amongst musicians — ‘They don’t pay me for the hour I’m on stage, they pay me for the 23 hours I’m off it!’ Finding ways to pass the time on tour is crucial if you want to return home with even the most meagre semblance of sanity.
Both bands have several different methods of coping with long drives; Black Peaks have a game called ‘Windmill’, a sort of cross between i-spy and Fight Club. The premise is fairly simple; whenever a member of the party spies one of the many picturesque windmills that litter the European countryside, they shout at the top of their lungs ‘WINDMILL’ and proceed to punch those to the left and right of them in the arm as quickly as possible. This made our drive through The Netherlands, a beautiful country with over 1,200 windmills, a tense, sadistic, Russian roulette-style exercise in brutal savagery; there is no winner in Windmill, only losers and bruises.
Heck also turn to games to pass the time, including an impenetrably difficult variation on 20 Questions simply titled ‘Guess’. The premise is simple; the designated ‘guess-ee’ will say something along the lines of ‘I’m thinking of a film’ or ‘I’m thinking of a book’ or ‘I’m thinking of an abstract emotion’ and it falls upon the rest of the group to guess what they’re thinking. So the answer might be ‘Braveheart’ or ‘Ulysses’ or ‘Infinitesimal with a hint of regret’. When played strictly, no clues are permitted, although when games go on for days (as they often do) the guess-ee may scatter little hints hither and thither. ‘Guess’ has the unusual properties of being thrilling and mind-numbingly dull all at the same time, but as a way to pass time and miles on the road, it serves its purpose masterfully.
Touring life is a life of never standing still, particularly when you have to cover so many miles in just a van. Sometimes a tightly scheduled itinerary will dictate that bands travel from venue to venue with barely any sleep; on one such drive from The Netherlands to Denmark, the timetable only permits Black Peaks one hours sleep before they have to get up and move on.
But that’s the glass half empty side of touring; both bands have created memories on this trip that will live with them for a lifetime and have seen things that most people could only dream. A life on the road is not for everyone, but for those who can stomach it, there is simply no better way to live out your days. Both Black Peaks and Heck live to tour, for them, it is literally the best part of being in a band, despite the long hours, tricky load-ins and living on a precarious cocktail of adrenaline and exhaustion. There are literally thousands of venues around the world, and following both bands around Europe for a week, I firmly believe that if they could, both bands would play every single one of them.
Both bands have had an outstanding year, with the release of their respective debut albums eliciting fervent approval from press and public alike. Black Peaks’s Statues and Heck’s Instructions are both intelligently crafted, inspiring illustrations of just how vibrant and exhilarating British music can be. As we come to the end of 2016, we find ourselves in an extremely fertile period in British rock music. The bands coming out of the scene in the UK have never been more strong, vital, diverse and exciting than they are currently. We are living in a golden age which many people seem to be completely oblivious to despite the over-whelming evidence all around us; Arcane Roots, While She Sleeps, Nervus, Jamie Lenman, Creeper, Three Trapped Tigers, Employed to Serve, Poly-Math, Black Foxxes, Palm Reader, Milk Teeth, This Be The Verse, Darkher, Zoax, Bad Sign, In Dynamics, Boston Manor … the list of new British bands that we can genuinely be excited about and get behind as some of the best examples of contemporary rock music in the world is larger than it has ever been. Black Peaks and Heck sit at the apex of that list, both shining beacons that carry the torch for ambitious, thrilling heavy music. If there’s any justice, 2017 will be theirs for the taking.