Backstage: On the road with Failure Machine, Van Goat

Spencer Kilpatrick

Breakfast on the road from Willits to San Francisco.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Spencer Kilpatrick

Being in a band can wear on you. Writing can become monotonous, recording can become less exciting, and touring can become more tedious. It’s easy to look around, even after a good show, and think, “Why am I still doing this?” Sometimes the practice-perform-repeat cycle is as habit forming as a few pre-show beers but, for me at least, the people that I’ve met through the last decade of being in bands have made this generally unprofitable and time-consuming hobby more than worthwhile.

This past weekend, Failure Machine (my poor ole garage-soul band from Reno) cruised to a KOA in Willits, California, to play a Lagunitas party with Van Goat (Oakland’s premier swing-punk band). For more than a year we’ve been not-so-jokingly talking about a

Clint Philbin giving us the thumbs up because he thinks the show will be pretty fun to do.

“band timeshare” where we’re all one group but because we’ve got doubles of most of the instruments, people can take nights off whenever they feel like it. We finally had a chance to try it out on Friday night when Aidan Ward (Van Goat’s singer/guitarist/clarinet … uh … ist) had to work late.

We learned a handful of each other’s tunes and put together a loose set list that showcased two drummers, four lead vocalists, bass, keys, guitar, bari sax and trombone. It was sloppy, energetic, and relentlessly fun, but the best parts came before and after. Lagunitas provided us with a cabin, teepee, and all the beer we could drink, so we got pretty wobbly and spent the night talking shit and wandering around the campground.

We first played with Van Goat in 2013 at a spot called Grant & Green in San Francisco — the show didn’t pay too well, the turnout was nearly nonexistent, and we had to run our own sound. It was a blast. I remember being initially blown away, then immediately jealous, at how tight they were and at how good Ward’s voice was. They closed with a monster version of “Let’s Get It On” and we’ve been friends ever since. Since then, their sound has evolved to play to their strengths — they’re at once garagey, exotic sounding and punchy. Their songwriting is as cohesive as they are prolific and with a stage presence that dares the audience not to dance, they’re simply magnetic.

Failure Machine’s drummer, Clint Philbin, had to head back to Reno on Saturday, but Rachael McElhiney (baritone saxophone/vocals for FM) and I went to San Francisco to play a Balanced Breakfast showcase at Amnesia. The showcase doubled as the release of Van Goat’s fantastic new album, “Follow Me Under,” and had an impressive bill of supporting acts, most notably LA’s Urban Renewal Project, a 13-piece hip-hop group whose use of a six-piece horn section and two emcees was striking, dynamic and powerful enough to keep the packed room engaged from the first song to the last.

Despite the dip in the sheer number of band members from URP to Van Goat, the energy level didn’t drop at all and the crowd remained rapt. Rachael and I hopped up and played with them for their last six songs and even though the band was tight and the audience was moving, my favorite part of the evening was the camaraderie we felt both on and off the stage. Something as simple and cathartic as playing tunes can be stressful at times, but the company we keep can often relieve the various anxieties that come along with being an independent band that plays original music.

Er … in other words, if you’ve been a big bummer about playing tunes lately, just remember that other people get bummed too — and go play music with them. Misery loves company or something.

 — Spencer Kilpatrick

Our setup in the corner of a dining hall. Ate a lot of hot dogs and potato salad only to realize I was fresh out of Tums… sonuva…

Spencer Kilpatrick

Derek Burle (bass/vocals for Van Goat ) sleeping in a cabin. Who sleeps at 3 a.m. anyway!!? What a great boy.

A rest stop in the way to Willits where we did some pissin.

About Spencer Kilpatrick

Author Spencer Kilpatrick graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in English. He hates the Lakers and his top three emcees are Blu, Earl Sweatshirt and Nas.

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