When Greenville, N.C., instro-metal trio The Kickass recently rolled into Richmond after two weeks on the road in support of old friends Valient Thorr, its members were out of money. The tour vehicle—drummer Bennie Powell's goliath RV—had been drinking about $1,200 each week in fuel. With guitarist Andy Townsend's travel fund depleted, The Kickass were ready to bow out by canceling their first tour in eight years.
"We got to Richmond and we were like, 'We gotta call the whole tour quits,'" says Townsend. "We were basically done."
But Sam Herring, the frontman of Future Islands, came of age in the same grimy Eastern North Carolina scene as The Kickass; in fact, they were an enormous inspiration for the ferocious stage persona he eventually built. He drove from Baltimore to Richmond in Future Islands' tour van with the goal of keeping The Kickass on tour.
"He was like, 'Look, if you guys need a vehicle, take my van,'" remembers Townsend. Herring also bought the band a hotel room before renting a car and driving back home. The loan of the Astro Van—or the Kick-Astro Van, as Townsend puts it with a laugh—salvaged the tour.
"If they don't have a car, then they can't tour, and if they can't tour then people can't see them play," Herring reckons simply. "If people can't see them play, then they'll miss out on a great experience, one I want to share."
Townsend is accustomed to this touch-and-go approach to rock 'n' roll, even if it sometimes doesn't work: The Kickass last hit the road in 2004, but they ran out of money in New Orleans and returned home. Previously, The Kickass had toured once, sharing a van with Valient Thorr on both bands' debut national tour. They had booked the shows via the now-antiquated social network MySpace, then a new and exciting tool for musicians. Despite the spartan conditions, they reached the end—the fulfillment of Townsend's definition of success.
"Seven dudes in this dingy van, sweating on each other, literally laying on each other, for three and a half months," he remembers of the un-air-conditioned marathon. "So that's how tight we got—their first tour, same van, tight. Enough said."
Like Valient Thorr, The Kickass formed in the college town of Greenville, in the very early 2000s. They shared stages and a member, Powell. While Valient Thorr's rapidly increasing visibility put the wild-eyed band constantly on tour, The Kickass were resigned to intermittent shows for the last eight years, whenever Valient Thorr's schedule allowed. There was no touring, and The Kickass have remained largely unknown outside of North Carolina.
Greenville promoter Jeff Blinder has booked shows in the town since 2003. At the now-defunct Spazzatorium Galleria (and a handful of other, equally illegal show spaces), Blinder was an anchor for an uncommonly healthy underground. For him, this trip across America is an arrival for The Kickass: "I know they've been waiting, they've been marinating."
Local DIY culture in Greenville made many converts—like Herring, who first saw The Kickass in July 2006. He had been invited to a party that turned out to be little more than the band's practice. In effect, he and some pals crashed it. Herring soon made friends with The Kickass, who were supportive when Herring and some friends started their own band—Art Lord and the Self Portraits, the wobbly precursor to Future Islands. They opened for The Kickass and a Valient Thorr side project at their first proper club engagement.
"As far as that time, it was a blur, and it was beautiful and sad," Herring says. "Greenville had an amazing heart and all these bands were a big part of that."
Blinder has since moved to Philadelphia, but he explains that The Kickass served as a fount of inspiration for young musicians in the town; its rare reunions continue to do so. A handful of local bands even formed in obvious homage to Valient Thorr and The Kickass, he says, but most players couldn't handle the trio's considerable technicality.
"Getting to that level was something they respected, but doing it on their own terms? Any time [The Kickass] would play, you would see all those kids in awe," says Blinder, who makes it sound like Townsend works as half of the town's occasional guitar instructor. "I know Andy has taught a lot of the guys who are in bands. They think of him as one of the forefathers of [local] music."
But Townsend professes to take a lighter touch; he finds out what a musician already knows and then teaches one new trick—a scale, an arpeggio, a lick, something to get that player excited.
"It's supposed to be fun," he says. "You're playing music, you're not working it. It's not supposed to be a job."
That attitude drives Townsend, and his balance of work and play in music has made this tour possible. He travels as a guitar technician for major acts. This tour is bookended by a run with European technical lords Meshuggah and one with Between the Buried and Me. After the Cat's Cradle show on Friday, he'll fly to Las Vegas to pick up his assistant duties with the latter.
Though Townsend spends long chunks of the year working for big bands, he has crafted a minimalist existence that allows him to make as much music as possible when he's not on the road. He says he's careful to spend very little money when he's home. He doesn't own a car, and the rent on the Greenville apartment he shares with his girlfriend is incredibly cheap. While most musicians who form bands in Greenville move to bigger towns with noted music scenes—The Avett Brothers and its predecessors, Valient Thorr, Future Islands, Lonnie Walker and, most recently, The Charming Youngsters—Townsend has stayed.
"It's a vehicle for being able to do what you want to do all the time," he says. He commutes into Raleigh to play with new death metal chameleons Grohg, as one of three guitarists, to keep productive when he's not on the road. But the distance between Greenville and Raleigh keeps him focused on more than practice. "Otherwise, I sit in my bedroom eating Doritos from the bag and playing guitar."
Though standing on the sidelines of major tours isn't performing, which is undoubtedly what he values most, regular, hands-on experience with bands has taught him a great deal about music and the business behind it. Valient Thorr also now has years of touring under its belt, giving the 2012 trek one critical difference from the one in 2003—experience. Townsend says he'd be happy to hit the road like this once a year, if possible, even if he has to fund his own travels.
"It does something for your soul to say, 'I actually did this, finished it and brought it back,'" Townsend says, happy that an eight-year gap is finally over. "I came home with nothing but good times, having rocked out for a month."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Road cruise."