PLAYING DETROIT: On the Road With JR JR

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It all started when I was a kid. My dad taught me that if I want to meet the band, I should wait by the tour bus after the show. I never abused this knowledge and I never became a groupie (even though the thought of becoming one was a strangely enchanting dream of mine; I was too sheepish to ever make it happen). My hours of waiting at backdoors and waving my hands at tour bus windows were completely innocent out of admiration for the artist. I drove around various parts of the midwest as a teenager, with my best friend, to follow Phantom Planet and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club with the only intention of snapping a photo or snagging a setlist. But never once did we make onto a bus. Fast forward to today. I am typing this in the back lounge of a matte black tour bus while the drummer and bassist sleep in their respective bunks, while the rest of the remaining members tackle a radio interview somewhere outside of Columbus, Ohio. I’m living out multiple fantasies via multiple realities and all I can think of is how this is not at all what I expected.

JR JR (Yes, once called Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr and no, we don’t want to talk about it) hails from Detroit but has gained impressive momentum across the country with their single “Gone” off their latest self-titled release on Warner Bros. The album is truly reflective of the band’s new trajectory into new territory, and an infectious collection of pop anthems that is relatable to anyone who has ever shed a previous self. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to answer the question, “What band are you with?” and when I respond, more people know who I’m talking about. Comprised of Josh Epstein, Daniel Zott, Bryan Pope and Michael Higgins (my ticket onto the bus and the key to my heart….awwwww), JR JR is not just a flash in the pan, forever-on-the-verge band. They’ve affected people. I’ve been lucky enough to see proof of this. And I think even the band would agree that this is the most coveted goal of being a band.

I first stepped aboard the bus when I kissed the drummer good bye, wishing them a safe and happy tour. This was at the end of September. Not five minutes after watching the bus disappear into my rear view, I remember pulling into a McDonalds parking lot to cry into my steering wheel. I was going to miss him. Everything I had ever known to be true about touring musicians (the girls, the parties, the general debauchary, the girls) fed into the fits of sadness that followed their departure. Despite knowing that these boys never once fit the description, I was haunted by films like Almost Famous. There was jealousy, too, that I did not anticipate. He would get to travel the country while I was forced to work my shitty 9 to 5  and live in my shitty apartment with my shitty cats (just kidding, I love them). This was shaping up to be the most challenging two months of my life. We talked every day, though I would often shut down and not answer texts or calls because I was too scared to know if he was having the time of his life without me. I can be selfish, sometimes. After a few weeks we decided in time and in tune that I would join the last leg of the tour. This solved several curiosities and satisfied my deprivation since his departure. I told my boss (never did I ask permission) that this was something I needed to do, and that he had no choice other than to be okay with it because I already bought the plane ticket to New York City and had already arranged for someone to care for my cats (see, I told you I loved them). I was warned of a few things while packing and frantically rearranging my life for this temporary escape. Packing was impossible as I realized I was at the mercy of the tour bus, the tour schedule, and that I had absolutely no control over anything that would likely happen. I had to let go and say yes, advice I have spent years giving other people would forcibly become my wayward mantra.

I landed in New York City last week. JR JR was gearing up to play Webster Hall and all I cared about was being reunited with my person. I had no idea that my life would forever be changed. My path was being unknowingly rerouted and my goals were silently one-uping each other.  I was no longer a voyeur to a life I once dreamed of, but an active participant. This was more than tour. This was more than music. This was an adventure.

Things you might not know about tour:

1. There is no pooping on the bus.

This might not seem like a big deal (and it isn’t) until you have to actually go. Pissing is fine, as long as your aim and balance are in check. You are at the mercy of whatever city you’re headed to next and the speed of the driver. Sometimes it’s best to sleep through the discomfort and pray you can hold it another 5, 6, sometimes 8 hours. Once we’re parked, we usually collectively spend the first part of our morning/afternoon looking for Starbucks bathrooms (for which I would like to publicly apologize for the havoc we have wreaked in aforementioned restrooms).

2. Sleep. Is. Everything.

Before I joined the crew, I would get so pissed at Michael for sleeping until two or three in the afternoon, as I had already been awake, at work and productive for hours before him. Now that I am a bus rat, I find it easy to sleep undisturbed until early afternoon because I know that load in (the literal loading of equipment into the venue) is going to be brutal, and the day is non-stop from the moment the tour manager shakes us awake. This leads me to point number three.

3. Bunks are NOT comfortable.

The size of a coffin, perhaps with a bit more leg room, the bunks are not ideal for anyone. Period. Even though I have my own bunk (I use it for storage mostly) I have chosen to cram into Michaels and it took three days to find our Tetris-like synchronicity during sleep. I’ve bumped my head, kneed him in the ribs, rolled out and off and on night one I had a panic attack induced by claustrophobia. I thought I was dead and had been buried. This is a common feeling while on tour. On the rare occasion that a real bed is available to us, we take it. We nap in it. We spread our limbs and jump on it. Beds are a luxury. Despite the stiff necks and sore limbs, the bus is our home and our bunks, most nights, are heaven. The curtains provide pitch blackness so that sleep at any hour is possible. Waking up disoriented is normal and actually grounding, if you can believe that.

4. You will get fat on tour.

I had a plan going in. I’m going to eat healthy and light and find ways to exercise along the way. This made no sense considering I don’t even do those things in my normal life. Well, it’s day seven and my clothes are fitting tighter, my face is noticeably a bit puffier and we even Uber’d from our hotel to a Taco Bell because, well, dinner wasn’t enough. It’s not that tour makes you fat, more so tour makes you hungry. You’re forced to think ahead every single day. If we woke up at 3pm, load in is at 3:30, soundcheck is at 5, that means we won’t have an opportunity to eat again until we load OUT sometime after 11. And of course there are bus snacks and green room hospitalities (booze, pizza, and cupcakes to name a few) all of which are contributors to this few extra pounds. A huge part of it, for me, is wanting to eat food in every city we go to. We ask the locals where the best tacos are or where their favorite pizza joint is. We indulge and are thankful for our generous per diem that allow us to be fat, happy, and well, fat.

5. There’s no time to party.

I think it’s a universal image. The band. The bus. The parties. Girls waiting to fuck you. We have been fed this story time and time again and in a lot of instances it’s true (if you’re Motley Crue and it’s 1987). Not only do I know the JR JR boys personally enough to know they do not fit this description, I have learned that there just isn’t time to be bad. Half the band is married and the other half are in relationships, and as a whole the shared goal is always the music. Between promo and press visits with radio stations, gigs and meetings with managers, and long bus hauls, we are lucky if we get enough time to wash ourselves in venue sinks (because showers are just as rare as beds and pooping opportunities). With rigid tour schedules, most of the time sleep is valued over night life exploration. Playing Xbox in the back lounge is preferred over drinking with fans. And visiting local museums and zoos is more appealing than Tinder’ing and scoring drugs. I can’t speak for every band, but I can speak for JR JR. We like burritos and nature walks, when time permits.

As I said earlier, I am somewhere in Columbus, Ohio. The bus has finally stopped near our venue for the night, and the boys are in search of breakfast. In just a few days my life will return to its normal speed and I will be forced to apply what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned to making my life back home more exciting. I will undoubtedly miss the lulling sway of the tour bus and the excitement of waking up somewhere other than where I fell asleep. I’ve walked the steps of Harvard and played drums during soundcheck at 9:30 Club in D.C. I’ve felt the vibrations of the roaring fans from the green room and I’ve watched hundreds of people sing along to every word. Beyond everything I’ve learned I’ve fallen even more in love with Michael, music, and this strange country than I ever thought possible. Tour is not what you think, not for a minute. But it’s that shift in perception and these sweeping realizations that have brought me closer to myself in ways that are still unfolding, still indescribable. The tour wraps in a few days in Chicago. We are all excited to go home and to sleep in real beds and shower for as long as the hot water allows. Collectively I know we will miss this strange, ever moving adventure…until the next time the bus pulls up.

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