"You're 'avin a giraffe mate!"
Tony is driving a van. Through Time Square. In doing so he is fulfilling a lifelong ambition and is having an absolute ball in the process.
A cab driver tries cutting us up and soon regrets it. Within seconds Tony’s head is out of the window unleashing a patter of mockney road-rage.
“Oi! Watchit mate! [pause] Nah mate, I ain’t moving. C’mon, you could get a bus through there! [another pause] Wot?! You’re ‘avin’ a giraffe!”
The phrase “You’re having a giraffe” causes much hilarity and confusion amongst the Americans in our entourage. For in-depth analysis from a New Yorker’s POV, check out Ashley’s Guest Blog. Suffice it to say that they simply couldn’t get their head around the connection between a long-necked, land-dwelling mammal and an Italian-American cabbie.
The van in which we are travelling, by the way, is a truly beautiful machine. “Stella The Wonderbus” has clearly hosted many a touring band over the years but remains in fine condition, affectionately graffitied with phrases such as “Man Love” and “I ♥ NY”. We are employing Stella to drive into Philadelphia for a headline show at Milkboy Coffee, a venue we habitually refer to as our second home.
The first time we drove down the New Jersey turnpike back in 2006, Tony greeted the prospect with tangible excitement – it was another one of those activities that he wanted to cross off his list of Things To Achieve In Life. By now the NJ turnpike is virtually an old friend of ours, a regular fixture in our lives. It’s also become fully apparent that, any romantic notions aside, it’s really just a bloody long road with lots of massive trucks on it. Why, we could almost be on the A329M cruising into Reading. Except you can’t get Taco Bell on the A329M. And that, believe me, is a crying shame. Little Chef is NO substitute for the Bell.
When we arrive at Milkboy in the picture-perfect town of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, it’s almost deserted. Two hours later, the sun has gone down and the place is full of Lightyears fans. This is why I adore Ardmore. It’s like coming home.
Oh, and the other reason I adore Ardmore is PEANUT-BUTTER MILKSHAKES. I believe I have made enough of this obsession of mine in previous blogs so I won’t harp on about it. But, if you’ve never had one, fly to Pennsylvania now and make a beeline for the Milkboy Coffee House. You won’t be disappointed.
The Milkboy is a real listening venue, and we love those kind of gigs. Rocking out in a sweaty club is a lot of fun but there’s also something to be said for shows where your audience hangs on every note you play – and this is one of them. We open with Fine and build slowly through Girl On The Radio and Home For The Weekend into all the upbeat stuff – Sleepless, Beat Alive and Emily, as well as some tunes that will be new to this crowd such as Brightest Star and Run.
As a general rule, and to quote Tony, when we play the Milkboy “something always goes catastrophically wrong”. It could be the sound-desk failing, or my module packing up, or George’s guitar falling to pieces – but it’ll always be something. I am, therefore, delighted to report that on this occasion the whole shooting match goes without incident. We play, if I do say so myself, a rather cracking show and the atmosphere in the venue is fantastic. Fans tell me afterwards that they’ve never seen the place that busy on a Wednesday night.
Being the kind of band never to turn down an after-party we are soon whisked back to Riverton, New Jersey, where Maureen has opened up her famous porch to one-and-all and plays host to an abundance of merriment, gin & tonics and some really delicious little cakey things which I think the Americans call “biscuits” (even though, of course, we know that a biscuit is a hard-baked confectionary product. Not a cake. Still, they’re scrumptious).
THURSDAY 18 SEPTEMBER, 7.45am (Maureen’s Yard, Riverton, New Jersey):
Once again, we were up last night until the wee small hours. However, respite is short-lived as we are forced to prise ourselves out of bed at 7.30am in order to get back to New York in time for a day of meetings and, in the evening, an impromptu studio session with a producer we met a couple of days ago in Manhattan.
Fortunately for us, the day starts in the best possible way – with Breakfast At Maureen’s. Supertramp may have recorded a hit album called Breakfast In America but they never had Breakfast At Maureen’s, so whadda they know? Not a lot, I’d say.
Scrambled egg, potatoes, crispy bacon, coffee, fresh orange juice, more biscuits (the American kind), several varieties of tea… we’re in heaven. The sun is shining and Riverton is looking resplendent. If only we had the time to shoot the breeze and admire the view; however, New York beckons. We say our goodbyes, climb back into our trusty steed and head back to The Big Apple.
Thursday passes in a whirl. We have a couple of meetings (most notably with Ariel Hyatt of Cyber PR – an absolute charmer and a fascinating person too – check out her blog here), experience our first ever Wendy’s burger (hearty, delicious and satisfyingly marketed as “old fashioned hamburgers” – although as far as I can tell the only difference from McDonalds is that the burgers are square), grab a pile of takeaway pizzas and a 12-pack of Buds and head to the recording studio.
Andy Baldwin runs a studio called The Devil’s Backyard in the heart of Chinatown. Funnily enough, by this point in the tour, I could quite easily have ended up in the devil’s actual backyard and not noticed – I am that beat. We paper over the cracks of our exhausted bodies with cheesy pizza and cold, fizzy beer and proceed to bash out a highly-charged version of Emily in under four hours. Andy mixed Morcheeba’s last album and is the John Wayne of producers – I mean, this man is seriously quick on the draw. He’s a machine. Which is just as well because we have a gig tonight on the other side of the East River and time is running seriously short.
When the clock strikes midnight we decide we really have to dash and so we arrange with Andy that we’ll come back the next morning to finish our vocals before flying back to London. We have received word that fans at the loft party we’re playing in Brooklyn tonight are starting to get restless and that we’d better arrive soon or we could have a mutiny on our hands. There’s only one thing for it. We dash out into the middle of Chinatown and use our by now expert hailing skills to attract the attention of the nearest cabbie. Once inside Tony makes it very clear that the guy needs to step on it and, to his credit, this particular chap takes to the challenge with relish.
He is pelting through the streets, flouting the highway code left, right and centre and taking on fellow motorists by the dozen. Disaster strikes when, on the way into Brooklyn, we hit a killer traffic jam. As it turns out, however, things are just about to get entertaining.
Our cabbie, whom I shall call Luigi for convenience, cuts up some self-important businessman in a goliath 4×4 freelander and obviously raises the guy’s ire because suddenly he’s leaning out the window flinging abuse at our trusty driver: “What are you, some kinda wise guy?” (he pronounces it “woise goi”). I almost guffaw with joy. Surely you have to be in Bugsy Malone to say that.
Somehow we make it to the McKibbin Lofts before our loyal fans have given up the ghost and, by now, they are really ready for a gig. If you ever make it to Brooklyn, you have to check this place out – converted textile mills that have become a mecca for the city’s artists, bohemians and pleasure-seekers. McKibbin is an icon of hipster style. All the dudes hang out here. You almost expect to find the Dandy Warhols jamming in the hallway.
We play a ramshackle unplugged set to a lasciviously boogying mix of artists, musicians and hedonists. We are almost delirious from fatigue and perform as if not playing would cause our hearts to stop. It’s a thrilling, surreal, unforgettable experience. At the last minute, and in an uncharacteristic bout of spontaneous improvisation, Tony re-jigs Banana Republic and gives birth to Obama Republic – he sings along, we sing along, the crowd sings along. It’s two months before the election and campaign fever is peaking across New York, which adds a certain piquancy to an already eccentric evening.
When the gig ends I’m whisked out the door by Ashley to go pick up another crate of beers. The only option, it seems, is to keep the party going ’till dawn. Gloriously, we end up staying up all night singing Ben Folds and Jeff Buckley, with Tony sticking staunchly to his claim that Hallelujah has “the worst lyrics in the history of music”, even in the face of a room full of people eulogizing over them as indisputably the greatest set of pop lyrics ever written. This commitment to contrariness is one of Tony’s most endearing features. He is the absolute best person to have a debate with, provided you don’t mind things getting a bit heated. Seriously, next time you see Tony, engage him in a discussion about his disdain for Hallelujah. He stores it in his brain right next to “The Cure might be my favourite band but Friday I’m In Love is a load of old dross” and “Humans are genetically pre-disposed to vegetarianism” in the “Opinions Guaranteed To Wind People Up” File. What a legend.
FRIDAY 19 SEPTEMBER, 9am (McKibbin Lofts, Brooklyn, New York):
I wake up at around 9am. It occurs to me almost immediately that I only went to bed at 6am.
Though whilst I’m on the subject, “bed” may be a somewhat flamboyant term for a keyboard case and a couple of cigarette packets.
So here we are. The end of the line. A taxi ride back into Chinatown delivers us to The Devil’s Backyard, where we finish the track, say our goodbyes to Andy and head battle-weary for the airport.
What a week. It feels epoch-making, era-defining. Downing champagne and feasting on fillet steaks in Business Class seems a long, long time ago. Particularly since, on the flight home, we are consigned to the Economy Cabin. Economy! No truffles? No quail’s eggs?! No Financial Times?!!
Upon touching down on English soil again on Saturday morning, many soberer individuals would head for the comfort of a freshly-made bed.
But not the LYs. We’re playing a private party in Devon. And we have to be there in four hours.
We do it because we love it. Pure and simple.