Josephine Wiggs’ Day Off

The Breeders bassist on what a "day off" actually means when you're on the road.

At the beginning of every tour, the tour manager distributes the freshly printed itinerary, disclosing for the first time the nitty gritty which will rule our lives in the blur of days that lie ahead. There follows a period of silent page-turning. I have yet to set foot on stage, but I am already looking for the entries headed “Day Off.”

Scrutiny of the fine print sometimes reveals that what these words actually mean is, “There is no show today because you will be held hostage on the bus all day, driving to the next show, a thousand miles away.” I am primed and on the lookout for these “days off,” after the time we played at Primavera, in Porto, when I boarded the bus thinking it was a typical overnight drive. Only the following morning, whilst sipping my first cup of tea, did I consult the itinerary and realize we would be driving for twenty hours to get to our next show, in Paris: no meandering through medieval streets, no visit to a museum. Even worse, I had failed to hoard a food supply for the journey from festival catering.

I know what you are thinking. “Why can’t you just pick up a chocolate croissant? Or baguette? Freshly baked and still warm, at one of those gourmet European service plazas on the A10?” Oh, if only life were that simple for the non-celiac gluten-intolerant vegan. I suspect you also believe that Porto to Paris is a mere 15 hour drive, so let me tell you, the tour bus — or is it the band? — operates in a different space-time continuum.

“For the sake of accuracy,” I say (and for the sake of avoiding crushed hopes, about which I remain silent), “Shouldn’t these be called ‘Non-Show Days’, instead of ‘Days Off’?” Then I see that neither KD, Kelvis, nor JM has even picked up their itinerary, nor do they seem the slightest bit bothered to hear of the cruel deception being perpetrated within its pages. Instead, they just stare at me, silently conveying the words, “Get over yourself.”

My keen interest in the day off may be due to the fact that I, like many people, imagine that touring is a bit like being on holiday, since both involve travel to far-away places. It is a misapprehension I persist in, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. Consequently, I often find myself confused, and angry, when, for example, I find I have a mere four hours to explore the thousand-year-old city of Prague, and half of this time will be spent finding a dentist to fix the tooth I broke onstage in Warsaw the night before, after KD gave me a piece Mentos chewing gum too sturdy for my weak English molars.

I know what you are thinking now, too: “At least you had four hours in Prague.” And, “Isn’t it more exciting to break a tooth in the former Soviet bloc, than, say, south western Ohio?” True. Also cheaper. The dentist charged 415 Czech koruna, about $18.

Europe, Day 8,
Or, La Mise à Mort de Fritz, Tours

I am jolted awake by a lurch and swerve of the bus. Debris on the highway? Asleep-at-the-wheel? One fears the worst in the cramped blackness of the bunk, where the words Füsse in Fahrtrichtung (feet in driving direction”) are printed on the fake wood panelling. This first rule of the tour bus is also a nightly reminder of Gloria Estefan, who, asleep head-first, broke her neck in a bus crash on a snowy road in the Pocono Mountains.

We resume course and momentum. It is 5 AM, but I am now unnerved, and fully awake. There is a light on in the bunk across the aisle. Kelvis is lying on her stomach, propped on elbows, doing a crossword puzzle, comfortingly unfazed. Neither of us speaks. (There is no point attempting conversation. Before coffee, she is “not officially awake.”) I swing down from my bunk, retrieve my flip flops, kicked down the corridor by a passerby in the night, and go downstairs to make a cup of tea.

We ran out of trash bags yesterday, and the cardboard box being used in lieu is already to the brim with plastic bottles. The water pump broke in London, and our drinking water supply — spring, sparkling and artesian, from the islands of Fiji, shores of Lake Geneva, and Scottish Highlands — is being poured down the drain to rinse cups and hands. KD and Kelvis have taken to shouting “Use the Perrier!” only half in jest, for they will not drink carbonated water, nor comprehend why anyone else would. “Agua sin gas” were the first foreign words I ever heard KD utter — though the effect was perhaps diluted since, as I recall, we were in a cafe in Paris at the time.

The sink is full of cups; there are no clean spoons. I travel with my own mug, so I ignore this state of affairs. Stirring in some almond milk with my spork, I note that, on the bright side, we still have paper towels to stave off descent into real barbarism. However, when I discover that the wifi is not working, I have to re-evaluate the role of a roll of Bounty as the bulwark of civilization. Without Google Maps, I do not know where we are.

Where are we? And, when will we arrive? These are the questions uppermost in the mind of a morning on tour. Or rather, in my mind. Everyone else seems finely calibrated to remain nestled in their bunks until the camber of an off ramp, the downshifting of gears, the stop and start at traffic lights, and the final shunting to park, nudges them into the new day.

We left Madrid at 1 AM last night. Our next show is Amsterdam, a thousand miles away — a 20 hour drive. Today is a day off. I look out of the window to try and glimpse any sign which might reveal our location. The heavily tinted glass makes wherever-we-are look as if it has been scorched by a forest fire. Under an ochre sky, field after field of row upon row of poplar trees flash past, their winter branches bedecked with huge dark globes of Mistletoe. I have seen this before, on holiday in France, and so, I conclude, we must be in France.

At 10 AM, our driver, Danny, takes an off-ramp to refuel. I open the door, and tell him I’m going into the service station. This is the second rule of the bus — tell someone when you get off at a stop or risk getting left behind. In the bathroom, I find that the toilet bowls have no seats, a stark way to start one’s day, and find myself having a Proustian moment, remembering a childhood holiday in France.


For the summer holiday that year, we took a ferry across the English Channel, and drove south from Calais to Montalivet, where the white sandy beaches of the Bay of Biscay are home to the largest naturist campsite in Europe. For you Americans, a naturist is a nudist, and my father Richard was an enthusiastic one.

Before setting off, our mother had forewarned us regarding les toilettes Française. At dilapidated, rusty, one-pump petrol stations, le Propriétaire, invariably with a fat, filterless cigarette on his lip despite a vocational proximity to the combustible, would wave with an oily hand toward a wooden door inside the dank chill of his garage. These doors, grubby-edged and grease-smudged, were painted sunflower yellow or sky blue, and often ornamented with a fan belt or two, hanging from a nail, like meagre christmas wreaths. In trepidation, we pushed open these doors to find, in place of the porcelain pedestal to which we were accustomed, a tiled hole in the floor.

To assuage our apprehension, our father was effusive about the “Turkish system,” and tried to jolly us along. It was more hygienic, he said, a better way of doing things, fun, even. Alas, all this was lost on my sisters and me, preoccupied as we were by the squalid probability of peeing on our shoes.

Even in the towns and cities we drove through, our bathroom anxieties were not assuaged. The squares and boulevards were furnished with “pissoirs,” public urinals, only partially privé, whose ornate cast-iron panels left the user exposed below the knee and above the chest. Our father was enthusiastic about this arrangement, but it was of no use to us girls, of course. We were ushered furtively by our mother past marble-topped tables and bentwood chairs, along long tiled corridors to the bathrooms of cafés of which we were not patrons: our mother drank neither tea, coffee, nor alcohol, and our father would not pay for a drink when he could get water out of a tap for free.

Years later, stopping on his way somewhere to peruse a pile of rubble at a demolition site, he found a perfectly intact porcelain urinal. To scavenge and salvage was one of his great pleasures, and over the years he had collected relics from houses, public houses, churches, chapels, schools, shops, hospitals, factories, railway stations and cricket pavilions. He brought the urinal home, attached it to a tree in the garden, and henceforth male visitors to the house were encouraged to use it (season permitting) because it would “save water” and be “less taxing to the drains.”

Still in my cubicle, I hear a cleaning lady at work outside, and suddenly become self-conscious that I am wearing pajamas and a bucket hat. Opening the door, I say, “Bonjour madame,” in my best French accent, in what I hope is a friendly and disarming manner, just as I catch sight of myself in the mirror, and see that my hat is inside out. Walking out through the store, I observe that every cup, T-shirt, tote bag, pen, pencil, sunglass frame, ashtray and biscuit tin is red, white, and green — signifying that we are, in fact, in Basque country, and have not yet reached France.

Exiting the gas station to rejoin the highway, there is a tiny roundabout, about four feet in diameter. The bus, with trailer in tow (transporting the guitars etc.), has to reverse, advance, reverse, advance, reverse, advance, reverse, and advance for several minutes to get around it. KD, roused from sleep by these maneuvers, appears on the stairs, and asks with a dark look, “What could we possibly be doing?”

At noon I see a road sign for Bordeaux, and at 1 PM we stop to switch drivers. A second driver joined us in London because two are required on such long drives. I ask Danny, “How much further is it?” He says, another three hours. We we are breaking the journey in the city of Tours (pronounced Two-er).

We arrive at 4 PM, park by the hotel, and everyone troops off to their rooms. By the time I have showered, evening is fast approaching. Looking out of the window, wondering what to do for my “day off” in Tours, I spy the black towers of an immense gothic cathedral looming over the town, and set off to walk there.

The street is flanked by stone walls too tall to see over, and before I reach the cathedral I come to a gateway to a courtyard, where I notice some people gathered. I go to investigate, and find they are looking into a stable; within is a taxidermied elephant. A sign reads, “Il s’appelle Fritz, il est mort en 11 juin 1902, Tours.” I can comprehend about this much en Français; pour avoir les détails, I must Google-translate:

“Fritz, born in Asia in the 1870s, was owned and operated by the American circus company Barnum & Bailey. His remains, donated by the circus to the city of Tours, were naturalized [made to appear natural] in 1902. Fritz weighed 7.5 tons, including one ton for the skin itself, which was 5cm thick. Its tusks reached 1.50 m long. It is kept in an annex of the Museum of Fine Arts of Tours, where it receives the visit of the walkers.”

Behind this measured description, more gruesome details emerge. The menagerie, which included 500 horses and 20 elephants, and traveled in a cortege of 65 railway wagons, arrived after a show in Bordeaux, where Fritz had “become aggressive,” and killed one of his keepers. In Tours, he became “uncontrollable,” and the decision was taken to restrain, and then “strangle” him, with ropes and chains, while onlookers “watched in horror.” Indeed, I should think they did. Reading on, the story of Fritz uncovers a rich vein of mostly grisly anecdotes concerning sudden circus-elephant death, among them, the Tregaron elephant, (accidental lead poisoning, 1848); Sir Roger (shot, Glasgow, 1901); the eponymous Jumbo (struck by a train, Ontario,1885); and Lizzie (unknown cause, Wales, 1888).

I leave poor Fritz, and move on to look at the cathedral (built 1170-1547), then walk along the bank of the Loire (which is France’s longest river at 629 miles) until night falls, and I make my way back to the hotel. We are not actually spending the night here. At midnight, we will drive another eight hours, to arrive in Amsterdam by morning. I get back on the bus, and climb into my bunk. Feet first, of course.

(Photo credit: left, Peter Ross)

We Fall, Josephine Wiggs‘ third album was released digitally and on vinyl on May 17, 2019 by Sound of Sinners.

Wiggs grew up in an unconventional family north of London. Returning home from a summer holiday with a donkey riding in the back of the family’s 1927 Rolls Royce was not considered at all bizarre. Wiggs studied cello as a child, segued from college in London to undertake a master’s degree in Philosophy, and then in a move few would have predicted joined a rock band.

After making three albums with The Perfect Disaster (1987-1990), Wiggs left to join Kim Deal (Pixies), Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses), and Britt Walford (Slint) in forming The Breeders. With the release of Pod (1990) the foursome were instantaneously dubbed an indie supergroup. Following a shift in line-up — with Kelley Deal on guitar and new drummer Jim Macpherson — The Breeders released Last Splash in 1993 with its hit singles “Cannonball” and “Divine Hammer” and became alternative rock superstars.

During the same period, Wiggs released two lower-key albums: Nude Nudes (1992) with Jon Mattock (Spacemen3, Spiritualized) working under the name Honey Tongue and Bon Bon Lifestyle (1996) using the moniker The Josephine Wiggs Experience.

In 2013, following the 20th anniversary of Last Splash, the classic lineup of The Breeders reunited for a world tour. Five years later in 2018 they released All Nerve, with Wiggs co-writing two songs and singing lead on the standout track “Metagoth.”