Dana Embrose's patience is much shorter than his lanky six-foot frame. His knees poke out of his frayed jeans like knots of cordwood; he hasn't seen a bathtub in days. His eyelids are as heavy as his guitar playing, and in the fading dusk, he looks as if he's spent a fortnight in a foxhole.
In a way Embrose has. For three weeks, the Keelhaul six-stringer has been making his way through Europe in an eight-man van thick with the scent of beer, sweat, and boys. He's been living on 10 Euro -- about $14 -- a day, getting paid mostly in bruises and a sore back.
After six hours on the road, the van arrives at Magnet, a Berlin rock dive, around six on a Sunday evening. It's a club of soft curves that looks as though it's been overthrown by the Salvation Army, with a big rounded bar and a dozen tattered couches sitting atop tiers of wooden crescents. The windows are made of blue-and-red Plexiglas, making you feel like you're peering at the busy downtown street below through giant 3-D specs.
A Boxer named Kitsch in a studded leather collar keeps watch over the club, pausing to gobble down bananas and tomatoes, and paw at a lime wedge someone has tossed on the floor. Magnet feels like a family den -- if Mom and Dad had mohawks and a penchant for blasting Yes's "Owner of a Lonely Heart" at a volume that no band fronted by Jon Anderson would ever do.
Embrose hauls in his gear, then slumps into a love seat; he needs a break, but only the calm gets broken.
The club's promoter, a bespectacled, nervous-looking man named Dietmar, insists that Keelhaul let the opening band use Embrose's amp for tonight's show. Embrose has been down this road before: He lets someone else use his gear, they break it, and he's screwed for his own show the next day.
"It's happened before, that's why I don't loan any of my shit out," he says loudly to Dietmar, the only time he raises his voice. "Somebody breaks it, they're a town away, they're like, 'I'll send you 50 bucks,' but they don't send you 50 bucks. If the amp gets broken, the next day you're like, 'Can we take it to the shop?' And there is no shop. Then the next show, you don't have an amp."
"You're the first band I've had in eight years to not cooperate," Dietmar insists.
"I find that to be bullshit," singer-guitarist Chris Smith chimes in.
"If you're trying to piss me off, that's good," Dietmar exclaims, getting flustered.
"I'll make you a deal," says Smith, one of the nicest guys with a neck tattoo you'll ever meet. "I will behave if you don't talk to me like I'm a fucking asshole, because that's the way you're talking to me."
"You're standing there behaving like a dick, that's why I treat you like a dick," Dietmar shoots back.
"Oh my God, he better watch out," Keelhaul's driver, a bearded Belgian named Jann, gasps from across the room. Smith is the size of a Frigidaire. Not a guy you want to come to blows with.
"Well, I pretty much gather a similar assumption about yourself because of the way that you're talking to me," Smith counters. "So we can both be dicks, or we can be gentlemen. One American should not get under your skin this bad," he adds, his voice straining with impatience. "I'm just one fucking idiot."
"How can we make it better? Tell us what will make it better?" interjects Yoris De Buysser, Keelhaul's Belgian tour manager.
"They're behaving like rock stars!" Dietmar exclaims, storming off to a loud round of guffaws from the four bandmates, who look more like the third shift at U.S. Steel.
"Welcome to the tour, dude," drummer Will Scharf beams.
It was on a toilet in the United Kingdom that Scharf first realized things were different this time around.
"So I'm sitting on the fuckin' crapper, right," he says, his eyes gleaming like freshly minted nickels. "I can't remember what town it was, one of the U.K. shows; this kid opens the door, and he's like, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' Then he goes, 'Wait a minute, aren't you Will Scharf?' And I was like, 'How the fuck do you know who I am, dude?' He's like, 'Dude, I know who you are!' It's weird. People aren't supposed to pay attention to us."
But they are. At Magnet, a young Berliner is eyeing Scharf from afar. "Is that him? Is that Will?" he asks. "That's the guy with the magic hands!"
Keelhaul has been running into this the whole trip -- the best tour of the band's seven-year career. They're averaging well over 200 people a night. In Greece, they drew 350 and sold 1,100 Euro ($1,440) worth of merch. At the end of the night, the only thing left was a couple of hooded sweatshirts. ("It's hot down there," Scharf explains. "They don't buy hoodies.")
For a gritty band from Cleveland that hadn't left its hometown in the past year, this is good business. It's also a long time coming. Formed in 1997 with former members of raw-rock favorites Craw, La Gritona, and Escalation Anger, Keelhaul has steadily built a devoted fan base, if not yet enough of one to play music full-time. Everyone has a day job: Scharf is a waiter at the jazz club Nighttown and owns two houses in Tremont. Smith is a machinist who makes precision airplane fittings. Embrose is a home-improvement contractor. Singer-bassist Aaron Dallison works the stage crew at venues across town, including Scene Pavilion.
They've all devoted their vacation to hitting the road in support of their anvil-heavy third LP, Subject to Change Without Notice, which was released in January by the Boston label Hydrahead. The album has met much critical acclaim, particularly overseas, where it was named Album of the Month in the respected U.K. metal mags Terrorizer and Rocksound, as well as Greece's Metal Hammer. Keelhaul toured Europe two years ago, but was relatively unknown back then. Now they're treated like underground-rock royalty.
Except in Germany, of course. It's huge on metal, but mostly the hammy, bullet-belt-wearing kind. German headbangers prefer their violence served with a little Velveeta -- they go mad for bands like Hammerfall and Manowar, who sing of dragons and seem to have at least one song per album with the word "steel" in the title. Keelhaul, with its mostly vocal-less trudge and rumble, doesn't go over nearly as well there as it does elsewhere in Europe. It doesn't help that the Berlin show has been poorly promoted by the club, with no posters or advertising.
"It's always cool when you come into town and they make a poster just for you," says Dallison, Keelhaul's most accomplished partier -- a fun, friendly dude with arms swarming with tribal tattoos and a laugh as hearty as a steak dinner. "For every show that's happened, it's been a really good show."
Tonight isn't one of them. The hundred or so fans at Magnet don't even seem like a metal crowd; there are lots of young girls with close-cropped hair and thick black glasses, giving the place the feel of study hall. The boys look underfed, and they mostly seem to talk about politics. They're all dead silent for the opening band, My Unsaid Everything, a moody screamo contingent from Berlin. But they awaken when Keelhaul takes the stage. Scharf asks that his monitors be turned up and everyone cheers loudly, clearly not understanding what he said.
The band slowly lurches into an hour of knotty, thinking-man's metal. Dallison shrieks menacingly, his tongue hanging out like a Great Dane's in July. Embrose, likewise, gives great rock face: He screws up his mug like he's siphoning a lemon, clamping his eyes shut and moving his lips as if he's talking each riff out of his guitar. Scharf appears to be running in place behind the drum kit, his feet and arms in constant motion, a thick vein bulging out of his shaved head. Smith stares down his guitar as he plays, as if he's challenging it to a fistfight.
Upon finishing, the band is called back for an encore.
"Shall we shake more booty?" Smith asks before dropping the hammer one more time.
After the show, Keelhaul signs autographs for a pair of blondes, one in a Guns N' Roses tee, the other in a bright red trench coat. Everyone's been knocking back thick glass bottles of gratis Berliner beer for five, six hours now, and spirits are high. Scharf, who takes digital photographs of every moving object on tour, tries to get a buxom brunette bartender with an exposed thong to pose for a shot. She pretends that she doesn't know what he's asking, sticks out her tongue, and leaves. Keelhaul follows suit.
The band piles into its brew-strewn van and heads to a West Berlin apartment that's home to Tom, a polite young Englishman who works at a local record store. Tom's floors are Keelhaul's bed tonight. "We have to keep our voice low," he whispers as they lumber up five grueling flights of stairs; he doesn't want to wake his roommate, which the band will surely do. Tom's is a big, thrift-store-appointed pad with runny portraits of Pope John Paul in the hall, a turtle desperately trying to get out of a mucky aquarium in the bathroom, and ornate wooden ceilings. The only food seems to be a lone tomato.
Tom passes around a headache-inducing mix of reefer and tobacco, loud conversation ensues, and then even louder snoring.
It's been two full weeks since Keelhaul has had a day off, and conversation is limping along on crutches, as if each utterance comes with its own excise tax.
The next stop is Hamburg, yet another six-hour drive away. Smith kills time by playing Tetris on a battered GameBoy held together by masking tape. Scharf sleeps. Embrose passes around a bowl of strong, minty weed.
The van is packed to capacity with four musicians, plus Yoris, Jann, and a reporter. There's also Sharee, an outgoing, heavily tattooed Cleveland stripper vacationing in Europe, who's tagging along for a few days.
"Everyone is definitely a little burnt out," says Embrose, a laid-back guy with welcoming eyes, who greets everybody as a long-lost friend and always has a bowl to share. "You're at the end of the tour, where everyone has already talked their fuckin' mouths off. In the van, nobody has anything fresh to say; everyone's kind of in that pissy state. It's that give-and-take of being older and knowing what to expect -- and being older and not having the patience with it anymore at the same time. It's still fun, though."
The band drives straight to its Hamburg crash-pad for the night -- a three-room flophouse with creaky wooden floors that reeks of cheap cleanser. It's run by Molotow, the club where Keelhaul will play tonight. "Incredible Stinking Garbage Cans" is spray-painted in large, shaky letters right outside the door. Posters for Billy Talent and the Raveonettes, other bands who have recently stayed here, line the faded sherbet-colored walls. Each room is outfitted with two cots and badly mangled blinds. Dallison takes his first shower in six days.
"You'll be the flower of the band," grins Yoris, a smiley man from Antwerp who speaks five languages and has a beard running halfway down his throat. He works for the Belgian label Conspiracy Records, Keelhaul's European distributor.
"If I stink, you stink. One for all, all for one. Get them dirty drawers back on," Embrose commands, not having time for a wash.
"Oh, the dirty drawers are on," Dallison says. He's done laundry but once this tour.
"I'm only two days," Embrose says, recounting his last shower. "I went five days. Two days doesn't feel like anything, really."
Indeed, man on tour is reduced to his most primal state. Basic acts like eating, sleeping, washing armpits, and relieving oneself become each day's primary objectives.
Most of this is made easier abroad, where club owners are responsible for providing dinner and a place to stay for the night. The bandmates aren't used to this kind of reception back home, where they draw smaller crowds, are on their own for food and lodging, and enjoy few amenities beyond free Budweiser. Their last U.S. trek, in 2002, was a financial disaster. They've sworn off American tours since.
"The last tour we did in the States was just ass-out. It was a waste of fucking time," Scharf says. "We basically just drove around the country practicing. About half the shows we could have skipped entirely. Total waste of time."
In Europe, relatively small bands like Keelhaul receive the kind of treatment normally reserved for the headliners of large halls in the States.
"Nick Sakes from the Dazzling Killmen sent me an e-mail, I thought it was pretty funny. He said, 'Have fun being Important Artists for a month,'" Scharf recalls of a pre-tour exchange with the St. Louis rocker, who's also toured Europe. "It's not like you're treated like a headliner or a rock star, you're treated like a guest. The club is the host, and you're their guest."
The money is much better overseas as well.
"We make about three times here what we make in the States," Scharf says. "And we get guarantees. That's part of the problem in the States. On the last tour we did there, a lot of it got farmed out to a guy who doesn't pitch guarantees to the people that he books the shows with -- he let it slide to door deals instead. Everybody knows, when you've got a door deal at the show, promoters aren't going to do shit to promote it. So when there's 12 people there, you're like, 'All right, so what do we get tonight? We get three sandwiches, two Cokes, a six-pack, and 20 dollars. Thanks.'"
Scharf has much more to be thankful for at Molotow, a small, subterranean club with steel obelisks suspended from the ceiling, backlit metal cutouts of voluptuous women mounted on the walls, and a series of TVs that play Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Laid out on the bar is a fancy spread of cold cuts, fresh bread and cheeses, fruit, vegetables, and candy. There's a small fridge stuffed with a case of Astra beer that Keelhaul is supposed to share with the German band Ocean, the other group on the bill tonight. By the time Ocean arrives, all but a six-pack will be gone.
Molotow is located between the Sexy Heaven porn shop and a transvestite cabaret, smack in the middle of Hamburg's infamous Reeperbahn district, a mile of strip clubs and sex stores. This is urban planning as envisioned by the folks at Vivid Video, with images of boobs and backsides lining the street. Germany is not a bashful country -- hardcore porn can be viewed on basic cable at night -- and Hamburg feels like Las Vegas with its pants around its ankles.
For dinner, the club takes Keelhaul to a place called Medusa, where they feast on steaks beneath large, brightly colored portraits of well-endowed topless blondes. "Great, just what I need, a boner," Scharf sighs as he takes it all in. "I'm not single on this tour."
Scharf is the most pragmatic member of the band. He saves money on meals by grabbing extra food from the club's deli tray, and he jots down song titles on napkins whenever he thinks of one (past gems: "Mash the Sandwich," "Tits of War," "Lackadaisical Chinese Tube Socks"). He saves all the Keelhaul promo posters made by the clubs and takes snapshots of every meal he eats. ("It's important, you gotta remember what you ate, dude," he says.)
Back at the club, the flier for tonight's show describes Keelhaul as "a loud, nervous band for people with short attention spans." The band drinks beer and gets high in an airless backstage room no bigger than a phone booth. The club is located down a winding flight of stairs below street level, and an earthy smell hangs about the place, giving it the feel of a wine cellar. The bathrooms are scarier than anything H.P. Lovecraft could ever think up.
The Ocean finally shows up, and a band member dazzles Keelhaul by opening one bottle of beer with another, a trick everyone tries to duplicate for the next half-hour. "Most bands have hookers backstage," Dallison says. "We're trying to open one beer with another."
Tonight's draw is again modest -- around 150 people -- but the loud crowd demands an encore; one fan summons the band back to the stage by banging an empty bottle of Beck's on the monitor until it nearly shatters. "We are completely out of decent songs," Smith tells the guy after one song. Despite the turnout, Keelhaul's intensity doesn't abate.
"I just hate bands that play for fuckin' 40 people and don't care," Embrose says. "It is hard to get going at kind of a lamer show, but it's something that you have to do. The 40 people there are like, 'Well, sorry that there weren't 120 people here, but we still want to see the show.' I just play the best I can every night."
The load-out is arduous -- up a long, narrow, spiral stairway. Scharf changes into fresh clothes in the middle of the street, getting completely naked at one point. Rather than return to the dodgy boarding house, the band decides to drive all night -- nearly nine hours -- to Antwerp, home of Conspiracy Records. Yoris and Jann are eager to return home for the first time in nearly a month.
Because Europe has no open-container laws prohibiting alcohol consumption in motor vehicles, the band stocks up on wine and beer at a gas station and settles in for the drive.
"Get your alcohol blankets on tonight, boys," Embrose instructs, and everyone does just that, drinking until they pass out in their seats. The snoring rivals the volume of the Molotow gig; Smith's nasal passages sound as if they have their own P.A. ("I bring earplugs for the tour, not for the music, but for Chris," Dallison says.)
The van approaches Antwerp shortly after daybreak. Keelhaul's first day of rest in weeks has already begun.
Antwerp is a small city with a big bulge in its pants. It's the diamond capital of the world, with cobblestone streets and a downtown littered with jewelers' shops among its many beer gardens and towering cathedrals. There are also blocks of brothels, where ladies flaunt their wares in store windows. Brightly colored signs call attention to "the art of genital origami."
Amid all the precious stones and vice is the Conspiracy Records headquarters, a spacious three-story apartment located around the corner from Antwerp's gay-porn district. It sits on a small, Old World cul-de-sac, where half a dozen cats sun themselves on top of cars, everyone keeps the doors open, and children outnumber adults two to one.
The Conspiracy house is the one with the skull and crossbones on its mailbox. It's a home away from home for bands on tour, and Keelhaul's base of operations in Europe. A perilous staircase leads to several rooms filled with bunk beds and mattresses. The office, pasted with posters for bands with names like Fuck Glaze and Christ Sexy, has four computers for checking e-mail.
Keelhaul does its laundry up the street and catches up on business. When the money is all counted, the band's still in the black. A good sign. Vincent, who runs Conspiracy with Yoris and books Keelhaul's European shows, is eager to bring the guys back this fall.
"I think you should do a shorter tour, like three weeks, pretty soon," he urges.
In the early evening, once everyone has woken up, Keelhaul and the Conspiracy staff assemble for a celebratory dinner at a small pub called Técht Kiekekot ("The Real Chicken Place"). It's decorated with paintings of chickens driving Cadillacs, stuffed hens mounted above the bar, and dozens of ceramic roosters. During dinner, a small long-haired mutt with a large overbite waddles in.
"He comes in every night for chicken," the bartender says as he feeds the dog some scraps.
Dinner is followed by 40-ouncers of the strong Belgian brew Jupiler, and everyone heads back to Conspiracy.
Scharf sits outside on a lawn chair, breathing in the night. The tour will be over in less than a week, and the toll it's taken on everyone is apparent.
"I just turned fuckin' 40, dude. I got responsibilities, bills," he sighs. "I'm trying to keep it together while I do this."
When asked why he continues to weather the grind of the road with little financial incentive and a whole lot of physical strain, he turns slightly wistful.
"When I was like 15 years old, I was like, 'I wish I could play drums in a band, play in front of all these people, blah, blah, blah,'" he says. "It's a refusal to grow up, basically."
The moment Keelhaul's tour ended in early May, adulthood demanded its due. Though most of the 28 European shows turned a profit, Germany was a bust (most of the five gigs there failed to recoup costs), and two dates in Sweden were canceled. There was plenty of good press, but good press doesn't pay the electric bill. Scharf and Smith have mortgages, and Smith is about to be married.
Weeks after returning home, Keelhaul canceled a pair of shows set for early summer, including a prime slot at the annual Emissions From the Monolith festival in Youngstown. Rumors quickly spread that the group is finished.
"To be honest, I was the one who actually suggested it," Dallison says of the skipped performances. "I e-mailed the other guys and just basically told them that we might as well cancel the shows that we had because I wasn't going to do them, the reason being I knew what the situation was like. We were burnt out on each other, burnt out on the music. Once you're together as long as we have been, you know when it's time to step away for a few minutes. When I e-mailed the guys, I said, 'Call it what you want, taking a break, temporary hiatus, whatever.'"
Scharf was blindsided. Though four weeks crammed into a stinky van are enough to fray the mightiest of nerves, there had been no bickering, no visible division -- apart from Smith and Embrose usually crashing in different spots from the others; they're the band's two stoners, and they tend to hang out together.
"I was totally, blissfully unaware," Scharf says, seated with Smith in the living room of his Tremont home, where portraits of sailboats line the walls next to Unsane posters. "I was totally depressed for like two weeks. I'm still kind of in a funk about it. I can't wait to get going again. That's my thing. I'm the only dumbass who's like, 'Let's keep going. I want to rock out.'"
One recent night, Dallison was over at Scharf's place until 8 in the morning, partying with Alabama Thunderpussy. Embrose has been jamming with Scharf lately and seems to be coming back around to the band.
"We probably won't do many shows for a while, but we're going to start playing again here soon," Dallison says.
Rising from his seat in the living room, Scharf pops in a video for the song "Cruel Shoes" that the band shot in London. It's a gritty black-and-white clip, with lots of close-ups and curled lips. Smith watches intently, commenting on the camera angles.
"It's been the fuckin' best band I've ever been in personally," he says. "The best musicians I've ever played with."
"I absolutely think there's more to accomplish," Scharf adds, contemplating an end to the band. "I wouldn't be happy about it all. I've got ideas for the next record."
Smith gets up to leave. It's a little past 10, and he has to work early tomorrow. Scharf follows him with his eyes as he heads for the door.
"Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of the Keelhaul Family Radio Hour," Smith chuckles. "What will happen next week? Only the Shadow knows."