Melkbelly is a Chicago-based foursome with Miranda and Bart Winters on guitars, Liam Winters on bass, and James Wetzel on drums. Their latest album, PITH, is out now via Wax Nine/Carpark Records. (Photo Credit: Ariella Miller)
In the early days of Melkbelly, when we played primarily DIY venues, we usually slept at said venues if we didn’t have any close friends in that city. This was beneficial because it saved us money we didn’t have and it helped build relationships within the DIY community, which was important for the next tour or album release. It was also fun. The post-show hangs gave you a small window to let your guard down, talk shit about more successful bands and admit that you were a big Dave Matthews head in eighth grade, years before Ryley Walker made it slightly less embarrassing.
As a touring band, you are always grateful when someone lets you stay at their home — well-organized art collectives in old loft spaces or store fronts; famous DIY show spaces that now stored the art of their aging inhabitants; nice apartments in high rise buildings occupied by people who go to basement shows; a house with a half pipe and several goats in the yard; a place with generous hosts who would give you their beds and sleep at their partner’s.
Most of these places were amazing, but some weren’t. Some were down right nasty. With the recent cancellation of all tours, including our own, I’ve had an opportunity to reflect on some of the spaces we’ve stayed at over the years. So here are the top five places Melkbelly has slept at while touring that I’d rather not be staying at while quarantined.
There was an attic in a dilapidated Victorian mansion where our host, a friend of our drummer James’ brother, was living/squatting. The unfinished attic was exposed to the elements in a few different parts, and other parts of the space had no floor — there were just 2x4s in between the islands of pressboard and walls made of curtains. The ceiling was also quite low, so Bart, James and I couldn’t stand up straight. Our host instructed us to be as quiet as possible to avoid detection from below, which was difficult as you balanced, hunched over, on the thin planks traveling from your sleeping zone to the kitchen that was also the bathroom. A garden hose with a spray nozzle was the shower. We were the children from The People Under the Stairs. James and I brushed off the old condom wrappers from our shared sleeping mat, which was provided for us before going to bed that night. If quarantined here, Bart or I would surely fall through the ceiling below and meet our fate with whichever Judge Alvin Valkenheiser-looking psychopath lived below.
4. San Francisco
The surfer crust punks lived in a three-story row house just steps away from Ocean Beach. No one who lived there had come to our show, but a friend of a friend had put us in contact and they let us stay there. We were just one of many bands that probably showed up on the floor each week. Someone let us in and then we never saw them again. Someone else was always in the bathroom. The house had been chopped up into 100 different rooms, so you had no idea how many people lived there — you just heard them having sex or playing Call of Duty ‘til sunrise. We had the TV room floor to ourselves. The (originally cream-colored?) shag carpet hadn’t been cleaned since the ‘70s and was now dark black with little mold forests spread throughout. My mother would have cried. There was nowhere else to go, so we just crawled into our sleeping bags and tried to focus on the distant sound of waves crashing onto the sand. Quarantine here would be rough. The thick ocean smells would be a constant reminder of the closed beaches while mold spores would slowly penetrate your brain.
3. San Francisco (again)
A German college-friend-turned-tech-bro had an apartment in the NEMA building across the street from the Twitter headquarters. The building was new and sterile and felt like a set from the movie Her. Silicon Valley mutants hung out around communal fires in the “incubator zones” discussing things like “soul disrupting” while sipping on Soylent. Some of them probably worked at Theranos. The view from the roof was pretty amazing, though. I think this apartment made me feel dirtier than the surfer punk house, even though the carpet in my friends spacious one-bedroom apartment was lush and softer than my bed at home. Staying here would lead to Melkbelly doing a Business Insider interview about the stress of quarantine in a luxury apartment complex.
2. Champaign/Urbana, IL
We slept at the cat piss house on the first night of a two-and-a-half week tour. This college town punk house was similar to many punk houses we had played and or stayed in before. It was filthy but full of energy and the delusion that making music could be a viable means of income. Like the surfer crust punk house of San Francisco, this house was a revolving door of touring bands each week. The house was also a revolving door for feral cats. All three bands from the show that night would pack like sardines into the living room, low-key fighting for optimal spots that weren’t damp and where you could fully stretch your legs. On this fine night, it was at least 100 degrees in that room, and as usual the window wouldn’t open and there were no fans. The heat brought out the deep smells from litter boxes that hadn’t been changed in weeks. The cats must have been attracted to mouth-breathers, because there was a constant battle to keep them from sitting on my sweaty head. That hot cauldron of cat piss, farts, and mouth-breathing, where no one slept regardless of how much booze you’d consumed, would damage us for years and remind me to always bring a fan on tour. There are too many people quarantining together in this house. Things would get ugly once the High Life runs out.
I became aware of the term “Punisher” several years into touring with Melkbelly, but the title aptly describes a dude we’d met many times over. They might have a beautiful home with a spare bedroom for each band member, secure parking, and high thread count sheets, but you’d never see those sheets because the Punisher doesn’t let you sleep. It doesn’t help that he bought all of your merch. The Punisher likes to hang and talk music. You’re going to see his huge CD and vinyl collection. He’s going to show you his vintage Fender mustang that will never be played. You might even listen to his old band. You’re going to stay up until sunrise discussing the ‘90s alt rock scene in Champaign/Urbana, Brian Eno’s lesser known producer credits, and Yo La Tengo’s top 25 cover songs. Your opinion and thoughts don’t matter because you’ll never get a word in. You can go to the bathroom for as long as you want, but he’ll still be awake when you come back out. The Punisher doesn’t stop. One week of quarantine with this guy and Jack White will haunt you in your dreams.
Melkbelly’s experiences are certainly not unique. Most bands have had nights swaddled in their sleeping bags, avoiding laying on their sides so as to not inhale the thick debris of wet cigarettes and athlete foot cultures thriving on an art gallery floor. I cherish each one of those hot, sweaty and sleepless nights. These nights are part of a show experience that is unique to DIY/small venue touring. Our canceled April tour was going to be a little different than previous tours — Miranda and Bart, who had always wanted to follow the steps of Throwing Muses, were going to bring their 10 month old daughter with us. This is still the plan for August, or whenever we’re allowed to tour again. Touring with my niece will require solid sleeping plans and mold-free carpets. Sometime this fall, we’ll be at a motel somewhere in Pennsylvania. Winnie will be wide awake at 5 AM and I’ll be laying in a full size bed next to James, romanticizing the days when I could just be passed out on some punk house floor, the distant sounds of waves crashing on the beach.
The coronavirus has hit many people financially, and it’s been especially tough on musicians who rely on touring to support themselves. If you’re able and inclined, check out Melkbelly’s Bandcamp and order a T-shirt, some vinyl, or whatever they’ve got on offer. Every little bit helps.
(Photo Credit: Ariella Miller)