We Can't Stop Here, This Is Bat Country - Part 3 (European Tour Edition)

Mowing down sucker emcees in a Black Hawk, Kosovo


I don't know a single soul in a single band who doesn't dream of touring overseas. A large majority never get to, at least not for music reasons. By 2008, I was in my early 30's and had been grinding away for well over a decade without so much as a sniff of an opportunity to tour another country. I'd traveled to Europe once for a proper backpacking adventure by that point. Almost three weeks of meandering through France and Northern Italy. A life changing, light bringing, soul enriching vision quest through narrow alleyways, gothic shadows and sidewalk bistro tables. I can still smell the fresh baguettes in Paris and taste the local wine of Cinque Terre, and I have been fortunate enough to return to Europe three more times after that first trip. This chapter of my odyssey chronicles the second time I went to Europe. This trip came equipped with a solid per-diem, a rock star tour bus and lots of machine guns. So, not your average excursion I guess.

We'll take one of everything on the menu, please.
Photo: Ben Shepard

The story begins with what was typically an innocuous, generic checking of email on a regular ass day in my Hill neighborhood apartment. This was before we all had phones that gave us little previews of every email we receive, so I wasn't enticed by a sexy first paragraph to investigate further. My internet source was an archaic hand-me-down desktop computer that barely worked. I would often get booking requests and networking communications via email, but on this day I noticed a subject line that said something to the effect of  "playing overseas for the troops". I opened it up and immediately thought it was a hoax. Let's just say that my level of baseline trust in humanity as a whole is about as low as it gets, and I'd sooner expect an email from Stone Cold Steve Austin challenging me to a chess tournament than a legit request for my band to get on a series of planes and into a tour bus that would take us to seven countries on an unforgettable journey of ridiculous proportions.


The email was from Armed Forces Entertainment - a division of the US Department of Defense that absolutely sounded fake as fuck in every way it possibly could. I'd heard of the USO, but certainly not of the AFE. I read the email with a knowing half-smirk and the kind of contempt I reserve for lazy fraudsters who insist on continuing the prince-of-Nigeria-in-distress charade. The message contained a link to the Armed Forces Entertainment website, and I actually considered not clicking it out of fear that my shitty computer would finally be put out of it's misery with a virus, or my personal info and porn search history would be exposed by a fishing scam. The body of the email was a generic, exploratory query of our interest in a paid overseas tour in support of NATO troops. It did not specify where we'd be going, but the thing that gave me pause was a reference to the feature cdbaby.com did about Earthworms. Ok, fair enough. I'll bite. I went to the website and scoured it thoroughly. Kid Rock had done one of these tours. Famous comedians. The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Random professional athletes. Seemed legit. I read the testimonials and decided I'd go ahead and call the number provided to me in the email, still not fully sold on the realness of this opportunity. There HAD to be a catch.

The recruiter on the phone was the same person who had sent the email, and she was pleased to hear from me. I was openly skeptical and fairly guarded. However, as the conversation progressed, I came to realize that this was completely real and that I shouldn't have been so sure it was anything but an opportunity that my band had rightfully fucking earned through years of hard work. It turned out that AFE was looking specifically for a hip-hop group to send overseas, as they were having difficulty finding one who wanted to participate. Can you imagine? Who would say no to this? Earthworms was in the midst of a historically good year and we popped up on their radar. Initially they were talking about sending us to Iraq or North Korea, but after some internal consideration they ended up deciding on Europe. Our routing would take us through WWII hot spots, but with the centerpiece being the war torn Balkan state of Kosovo. At the time, Kosovo was the newest country in the world, still being policed by joint NATO forces, and the troops there didn't often have good ol' American entertainment flown in for them - much less an underground hip-hop group from St. Louis. So after it was clear that their intentions were pure, our response was something akin to: HELL YES WE'LL GO WHEN DO WE LEAVE.

Frank Urtado
Tim Siskey (Fresh Heir) and Steve Blast
The answer to that question was approximately five months. First, there was a world of government paperwork and personal vetting to be done. AFE agreed to let us bring our friends "Fresh Heir" on tour with us as our backing band who would also open each show with a set of their own, as well as a sound engineer who would pair up with the in-house sound guy they assigned to our tour. The sound guy we decided to bring was Steve Blast - famous for his work with the St. Lunatics (he produced "Batter Up" among other things), and the sound guy we were assigned was Frank Urtado. Frank is a sound engineering PRO and a veteran of not only the Marine Corps, but of dozens of these AFE tours. In addition, there was a tour manager slot we needed to fill. It was decided that I would wear the tour manager shoes and we'd fill the open slot by bringing our friend Lincoln Nelson - a film maker and camera savant who would shoot every moment of this tour for the documentary it deserved. In total, we had 12 people set to travel in what could only be described as a bold act of organized chaos - funded entirely by the same US government we so fervently admonished in countless rap songs . What even is this world?

Lincoln Nelson


Lincoln interviewing Lt. Felix on the military bus in Kosovo


(SIDE NOTE - I'm quickly realizing this is a long story and there is no way I'll be able to bring the "Bat Country" series current in this blog entry. I'm very sorry for this, not only to you - but to myself. I'm feeling stuck in this cycle and want very much to write about other subjects, but I have to finish the sordid tale of how I made my life super hard first).


Worms in Chicago, on the way to Munich

Well, whatever. There we were, getting sent on an all expenses paid-and-then-some trip to Europe with no stone left un-turned as far as the experiential offerings were concerned. No fucks given when I suggested the DOD pay for our backing band to join us. Not even a hint of hesitation. This, kids - is called leverage. Not something a lot of us really get to experience on an indie level. Hashtag blessed.

So off we went. STL to CHI to Munich. A big, shiny, red tour bus - complete with a German driver named Armin - met us at the Munich airport and we rode straight to a vacation base called Edelweiss - way up in the German Alps in a town called Garmisch. On the way up, we learned that the last band to use this particular bus was none other than 90's one-hit-wonder - "Lit". I hated that song, whatever it was called.

The Big Red Rocket in Garmisch, Germany


"Picturesque" doesn't quite describe the scene we pulled into. Shit was straight out of the Sound of Music. It was a ski resort and the venue was a proper ski lodge called Zuggy's Base Camp that easily could have been in Breckenridge or Vail. The big TV screen at the entrance to the hotel was playing an ad for our show the following evening on loop, featuring a slick looking segment of the music video we shot in Hollywood. I probably don't need to say this, but after flying to Germany with my band, getting into a fully loaded tour bus that took us to this fantastical wonderland, and seeing our video being played on loop at the front entrance - we started to feel like we low key LEVELED THE FUCK UP.


Jet lag and German beer on the bus
The first three shows were in the German state of Bavaria. Edelweiss, then Grafenwohr and  Schweinfurt. Graf was the primary Nazi training base during WWI and WWII, taken over by the Allies when Hitler (who would often visit the base and stay in the building we stayed in - yikes) went down. Schweinfurt was destroyed by Allied bombs multiple times during WWII and rebuilt. The base was in farmlands. Our transit between these bases went through other well known outposts and lots of rural areas. The shows were not super packed, what with multiple wars going on at the time and a majority of troops deployed to said wars, but they were extremely rewarding. The conversations with soldiers in attendance and the pure love and gratitude we were shown made our hearts soar.

After the third show, we were taken to the Frankfurt airport - where we caught a plane to Pristina, Kosovo via a short layover in Budapest.

It had only been a short time since bombs and missiles were lighting up the skies in Kosovo by the time we stepped off the plane into what felt like a different planet. Kosovo had only been an independent nation for six months at this point. Worms had been given first class accommodations for this flight (another tick on the ballerific meter), and the juxtaposition between that and the world we stepped into after having a private flight attendant and specially prepared meals was insane. Kosovo was a third world country, no other way to put it. The entire place was a big juxtaposition, to be honest. Bombed out buildings surrounded by ramshackle poverty, but the ladies were rocking Gucci and Prada. The fellas were well kept and dressed to the nines. There was a lot of pride in being a part of history, and pain for how they had to get there. After the dismantling of Yugoslavia, Serbia didn't let Kosovo gently become it's own sovereign nation. Lotta bloodshed. Unspeakable atrocities. If you aren't familiar, you should do some reading on the subject.

Dem Boys


Right before I was pummeled by a nice puppy
We spent three days in Kosovo at Camp Bondsteel. The soldiers on base were a mixture of American and Russian, and since it was still considered an active war zone, everyone was in fatigues and carried a machine gun on their shoulders at all times. Even during meals. Even at our show. We were treated extremely well and had the run of the place, to an extent. There was no boozing on base, so we all had to raw dog our way through it. We toured the K9 training facility where dogs learn to sniff out the thousands of landmines still active and buried in the ground there. I strapped on a "bite suit" and was run down by a handsome and otherwise very sweet Australian shepherd. We watched a Black Hawk start up and take off after they let us climb around in one of them. We ate for free in the mess hall, which was actually super legit.
Kama and I in the cockpit of a Black Hawk
One day, I was rolling solo before our show and got all turned around trying to find the mess hall because the barracks all look the same. I happened upon the Brigadier General in charge of the entire operation and he walked me to the food spot and sat with me while I ate, like he didn't have an entire base full of multi national troops to run. We also, in a show of solidarity with the more extroverted troops stationed there, partook in a karaoke night. Nick and Ryan from Fresh Heir, along with Kerry from Earthworms did a rousing version of  "Too Close" by Next (complete with dance moves), while I countered with "Peg" by Steely Dan. What a time to be alive in the Balkans.

The show in Kosovo went off. Biggest crowd of the tour and they loved it. We said some borderline tearful goodbyes, headed back up country to the Pristina airport, and off to Brussels, Belgium we went. The boys in Fresh Heir got those first class seats this time around.

Squad

Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo


When we landed in Brussels, we were thirsty. Armin had the bus stocked with beer and whiskey in anticipation of our aggressively sober arrival. And so we drank. Aaallllll the way through Belgium until we got to The Netherlands for our next tour stop in Brunssum. The base was on the edge of the Hurtgen Forest, where they fought the Battle of the Bulge, and the hotel we stayed in was completely empty except for us. Our show was the following evening and attendance was sparse, due to most of the inhabitants of this base being deployed to various war zones, similar to the German bases. Ironically, we probably played the tightest show of the tour to about 20 people. Afterwards, a few of us hopped into cabs and went into the nearest city (Heerlen) where we'd seen a "coffee shop" earlier in the day on a walkabout. Keep in mind this was before weed was legal anywhere in the US, so this was going to be a rite of passage for those of us who partook.


The coffee shop was called "The Capricorn". We rolled in there right before midnight, when they were due to close. However, because we were a "famous American hip-hop band" they kept the place open for another hour and a half for us, and the patrons who were already in there. We got really, really high. They wouldn't let us pay for anything and they gave us a bunch of branded swag. The owner came out from the back and tended to our massive vaporizer and they had our music playing on the speakers. When we got up to leave, they tried to give us a huge amount of weed to take with us on the rest of our tour, but because we were strictly forbidden to have anything illegal on the tour bus (mostly because we had to pass through armed military checkpoints and were often subject to search) - we were regrettably forced to decline. Let me tell you - this was very good herb. Saying no to a significant amount of it for free was not an easy thing to do.

Midnight.. at the Capricorn - Heerlen, Netherlands

Writing a song somewhere in France
Anyhoo, the following day we piled in the bus for a very long ride to England through the entirety of France and some of Belgium. We wrote this song in the back of the bus that day, and also came up with the name of our documentary (Capricorn Dreams) and our third album (Midnight at the Capricorn). It was productive. Somewhere along the line, we all started drinking heavily again, so by the time we crossed the English Channel to the Cliffs of Dover and got to the Mildenhall Royal Airforce Base in Southern England, things were a bit messy. I had to get everyone off the bus so the soldiers at the gate could search it, and this required waking some of the guys up from a dead ass alcohol induced coma. Side note - don't be the tour manager if you're also in the band. Take my word for it.

At a Military checkpoint in England. Very, very drunk.

The show in England would be the last one of the tour. It was a good show with solid attendance, but we were all zombies by this point due to a very rigorous travel schedule and an equally rigorous drinking schedule. We couldn't even really sleep before having to drag our corpses back on the bus and head to London for our flight back to the States. My final act as tour manager was arguing with the extremely rigid airport official who was insisting we all get in separate lines to check in, even though we had exactly one piece of paper from the US government to act as a voucher for our abundant music equipment. This toolbox simply couldn't wrap his mind around this, even though every other airport - including the one in a third world country - seemed to understand the situation without having the kind of aneurysm this guy was having. He almost made us late for our flight and my exhausted ass let him HAVE IT. Looking back, I feel fortunate I wasn't detained. No regrets though, dude was a douche.

In advance of this tour, the Riverfront Times asked me to write a blog that they would publish, chronicling this very unique experience. Links are below.

Earthworms RFT Tour Blog Vol. 1
Earthworms RFT Tour Blog Vol. 2
Part Three is missing I guess
Earthworms RFT Tour Blog Vol. 4
Earthworms RFT Tour Blog Vol. 5

Upon our return to St. Louis, Earthworms went straight into the studio to record our third full length album "Midnight at the Capricorn", which was to be released by a subsidiary of Columbia Records. That did not happen. More on this terrible injustice in the next entry.

This is where I'll cut it off for today. The European tour was bananas, straight out of a teenage rock and roll dream. I know some people who will read this have toured overseas before, and to them - this won't seem like such a big deal. But stepping back and thinking about it - about how many kids start bands with stars in their eyes and never get to play outside of their own home town, much less in a far flung Balkan country - I get a bit emotional about it. It was a huge deal to us and I'll remember it fondly for the rest of my life. The documentary "Capricorn Dreams" - shot and cut by Lincoln James Nelson - is linked in this very sentence. It's a fun watch. I cringe at a few parts nowadays, but you should definitely check it out if you haven't. Quite a time capsule. Thanks, as always, for riding with me. Talk to you again soon. Deuces.

Pit stop in Belgium

Edelweiss Resort, Garmisch, Germany

Boarding a Hungarian airline in Budapest

Mahf and I on stage in Kosovo

Kama and Kerry on stage in Kosovo


Lincoln, Ben Roig (Fresh Heir), Tim (FH) and Kerry in Heerlen, Netherlands
Hanging out with the attack puppy and the trainers

Traversing the English Channel from Calais to Dover









  

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