'Noise and Chaos'

Relish on the road with Warped

Photo by Chris Caffaro Three a.m. in the Oregon woods is 3 a.m. in the Oregon woods, no matter how fast you're driving through on I-84. It's dark and creepy and disembodied talk-show voices emanate from the crackling radio as you hurtle down the highway at 90 mph with a van full of sleeping female rock musicians. The mind wanders. You haven't slept more than three straight hours in the past week; you're living on Red Bull, Marlboros, coffee and Mountain Dew; and you're halfway through a 4,500-mile trek that will take you from Fullerton to Denver and back by way of Calgary.

So when something suddenly flashes in your headlights, you don't have time to think, swerve, brake or even react. You merely utter an honest articulation of the moment:

"Holy fuck!"

And the leaden thud of impact.

Laurita Guaico, lead guitarist for Relish, flies from the back of the van into the front seat, nearly squashing Lynnae Hitchcock, Relish's drummer, who's jolted from a deep sleep. Michele Walker, bassist and lead vocalist, bolts upright.

"We just hit a deer," says driver Chris Walker.

He pulls to the side of the road and jumps from the van. In the headlights, the women see his expression: eyes wide, mouth gaping. The front of the van looks like crumpled tinfoil, the grille is ripped off, blood and deer guts are everywhere.

They're lucky. It happened so fast Chris didn't have time to react, or overreact. At that speed, a swerve or a slam on the brakes might have flipped the van.

Inside, Guaico isn't heartened by this news. She's sobbing uncontrollably, asking for divine forgiveness for just waxing a deer. And, sure, maybe the lead guitarist in a rock band on the Vans Warped Tour isn't supposed to react so emotionally to what is obviously a freak accident, but give her a break. She's got good reason. She's tired. She hasn't showered in a couple of days and probably won't for a couple more. She's got to be onstage 300 miles away in 12 hours. She's a vegetarian.

II.

Making it big is all relative, but touring on the western swing of the Vans Warped Tour is the closest Relish has come to the bright lights and the big stage. After playing small clubs in and around Orange County for seven years, this seems, relatively speaking, big: real bands, real venues and real people—thousands of them at each show.

Relish's 17-day, 15-gig, nine-state, two-country stint on the tour is spent performing one half-hour set daily on one of the side stages, sponsored by Volcom Entertainment, a subsidiary of Volcom Clothing, the surf- and skatewear company based in Costa Mesa. Relish is sponsored by Volcom, as are Bueno, a politicized punk outfit from Arizona, and the Line, a fittingly intense, Costa Mesa-based punk band that appeared on the Warped Tour last year. Line guitarist Ryan Immegart doubles as point man for Volcom Entertainment, serving as road manager, problem solver and gofer.

Bueno has rented its own camper. The Line and Volcom's sound guys are traveling in an air-conditioned RV that stays clean for about two hours. Compared with Relish's situation, however, the RV is the Ritz-Carlton. They're stuck in a clunky white Dodge Ram van owned by Volcom. Supposedly it has shocks, but no one's told the van. There's a foldout bench in the back that sleeps two very uncomfortably.

Fifteen gigs in 17 days, most of them separated by at least six hours of driving, means there is rarely time for motel rooms. So the van is their home, their bed, their office, their dining room. This is where they bitch, whine, yell, laugh, bond, dissolve, hate one another, love one another, and basically coexist for two impossibly grueling weeks of travel, setting up, tearing down, and trying to find showers, bathrooms and a Denny's in order to achieve some fleeting sense of permanence amid the chaos and unpredictability of life on the road.

And that road is tough. They have to be on-site two hours before the gates open, usually at noon, and stick around for several hours after the gig ends to help tear down the stage and merchandise booth. Then they hop in the van and drive another inconceivably long distance and start all over.

For their trouble, they each get a small per diem, averaging around $20 per day, and a portion of the proceeds of their CD and T-shirt sales (which comes to about $200 by the end of their stint).

Oh, yeah: they also get to play.

And play they do. Fifteen sets in 17 days, and when the tour is over, they're tighter, more energetic, better and—this is incalculably important—more committed to one another and the band than ever before.

III.

The tour is both bewilderingly brief and agonizingly long. It begins with a shitty kickoff gig in a shitty town called Fresno. It's redemption in Chula Vista, where everyone loves Relish. It's 110 degrees and dusty in Phoenix, "a place where bad people go to get punished," according to Walker. It's a canceled show in Las Vegas and another sweet show on the beach in Ventura. It's two disappointing hometown gigs in Anaheim spoiled by the fascists who make the band pay $10 just to park at the Arrowhead Pond. It's a triumphant gig on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, where the fan reception is better than anywhere else. It's a forgettable gig near a Soda Springs Ski Park ski lift near Lake Tahoe. It's a sonic orgy in Boise, Idaho. It's Fourth of July fireworks in Quincy, Washington. It's bloodthirsty mosquitoes the size of houseflies and ragged-around-the-edge kids who really need their punk rock fix in Calgary. It's mud in Bozeman, Montana; it's fresh-scrubbed Mormon kids in Salt Lake City with lots of cash and bulging bags; and it's 95 degrees and wet-blanket humidity in Denver.

And it's all worth it. By the time they hit Denver, Relish has re-defined its stage show. Walker, who already possessed the sweetest vocal chords on the entire tour, has evolved into a far more energetic and dynamic performer, roaming around the stage. Hitchcock's drumming is more powerful, and she's built a deeper rhythmic connection with Walker.

And Guaico has a revelation.

"People aren't here to hear good music or expert craftsmanship. It's all about performing and acting," she says. "They want to see rock stars and animated, exaggerated people onstage. Screw how long you've worked on the songs and the dynamics. They want noise and chaos."

That's what Relish gives them in Idaho: noise, sonic dissonance and weird textures. The crowd loves it. It's rewarding but a bit frustrating. "We spend all the time on this music, and then we give them this fucked-up shit, and they love it," Guaico says.

IV.

In San Francisco, Relish receives its best reception. Playing in a parking lot on the edge of the San Francisco Bay with the downtown skyline and the Bay Bridge behind them, it's a perfect setting. The crowd is huge, they're into the band, and everything is right in this small corner of the rock world.

But they have no time to enjoy it. The wind musters itself somewhere unseen and then unleashes its fury on the Volcom merchandise tent. Shirts and stickers swirl all over, and the band has to help sort out the gear.

Immegart, as usual, is unperturbed. One of the hardest-working dudes in show business, Immegart is running the merch booth while at the same time trying to save it. With one hand, he's hawking merchandise and taking money; with the other, he's holding the edge of the tent to prevent it from sailing into the bay Wizard of Oz-style.

V.

One part of making it big is access. Rock stars hang out with other rock stars. But Relish doesn't have time to properly schmooze on this tour. When they're not setting up or tearing down, or performing, or performing daring rescues, they're trying to sleep as much as possible. They do make friends with a couple of the bands on tour, like Flogging Molly and the Toledo Show, both from Los Angeles. They bond a bit with the Lunachicks, and they talk nearly daily to Kevin Lyman, the guy who launched the Warped Tour.

But as far as big, outrageous parties with Green Day or the Long Beach Dub Allstars, forget about it. But for a brief interlude, Relish is definitely queen for the day.

In Quincy, Washington, they kidnap the bass player from Zeke, a Washington-based white-trash speed-metal band that is the underground favorite of many of the musicians on tour. Everybody lines up to basically kiss the band's ass, praising them and wanting to be their best friend. But Relish steals away Zeke's bass player, Jeff, with the promise of partying all night with three hot chicks.

The only problem: there are no drugs, legal or otherwise, to be had. There is no booze. It's after 2 in the morning. But he winds up crashing in their motel room in Spokane, and the next morning, when the rest of the bands find out about Relish's brush with white-trash speed-metal cult greatness, they're the talk of the tour.

VI.

"I'm going to get a heart attack if someone doesn't give me some whiskey."

That's Moses, screaming from the kitchen. Moses is an old, balding, wrinkled reformed alcoholic who owns a nameless cafe 100 yards short of the Canadian border in Idaho. Moses is a very sweet, wise an loveable soul. His restaurant is a last-chance stop before the Canadian border, where everything is more expensive.

The four-member Relish squad are the only people in the restaurant. Full steak dinners are $5, and they're delicious. Moses is also the cook; his wife and daughter are the servers. Every so often, he exits the kitchen—cigarette dangling from his mouth—to ask how the meal is going.

"How you kids doing? I don't suppose anybody has a bowl I can smoke. See what I got to put up with? She won't let me drink. Women push me around all day."

Moses lived in a truck outside a bar for two years. He and his wife just purchased this joint weeks before. He adores Relish, giving them better cuts of meat and offering to let them sleep in the restaurant if they come back the same way.

It's not exactly the scene from Good Fellas where Ray Liotta knows he's made it because he gets a front-row seat at the Copa Cabana. But it's definitely a start.

VII.

Trip over. Relish returns as conquering heroes, sleeps for days and days, and legions of fans back home shower them with attention and affection.

Not exactly.

It's back to work or school or general day-to-day drudgery. The band hasn't made it yet, but this taste of the big time won't be easy to forget. Before they're even back home, they're getting e-mails from new fans who discovered them on tour. Now it's time to plan follow-up gigs, pursue contacts, start recording another CD, and continue to chase the seductive dream. It's about execution, follow-through and hard work. It's about keeping your eyes on the road and your foot on the pedal—and not freaking out when you hit something big.

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