Lawrence Arabia: Tales from the American road

It came to my attention early this week that Lawrence Arabia (the much adored musical brainchild of Christchurch-born musician James Milne) was to play in San Francisco on Thursday. I was enthused about this even if I don't really know too much of Milne's music (aside from the fact that people with good taste generally seem to like it). It seemed a chance to live out a small-scale version of the epic stories you hear about Dave Dobbyn concerts in London.

My schedule sadly did not allow my attendance. But regardless, I made contact with Milne's "people", curious as always to hear the word from a New Zealander doing it for himself in the big wide world, living out an American rock'n'roll fantasy: a van, a band, the road, etc, etc, etc.

It is a grey Saturday afternoon when I connect with James Milne. He's somewhere in Washington state, en route to a show in Seattle that evening.

The sky in San Francisco is a bit of a hangover from a week of heavy rain across California. The Chevy van that Milne is in (a loaner from friend Ryan McPhun of fellow New Zealand band the Ruby Suns) pulls over to avoid any reception issues. After Lawrence Arabia's San Francisco concert on Thursday night, the band had driven 11 hours through to Portland yesterday. Milne is excused from driving duties on tour. He only has his learner's driving licence.

"I'm somewhat plagued with guilt about it," Milne says, ever so drolly.

In a few hours Milne will arrive in Seattle, go through a sound check and then play a show. Rock and roll moments on tour come wedged between long stints of travelling. "It's a strange mix of mental states. I come out of the van feeling dazed and there's this compulsion to just go to a gas station and eat junk food and fall asleep," he says.  

Zipping between bursts of shows, there's also not a lot of sightseeing that happens. Milne tells me that when they do stop, they look for resting points that can offer them guitar shops, thrift stores and cafes in close configuration. 

Milne is aware that being here, touring the United States of America with his band, is the fulfilment of a rock'n'roll dream of sorts. He won't confess to it being the only rock dream for him, but he says that when he began to visualise the musician's life for himself in his early 20s, he'd have been quietly chuffed to be able to look ahead and see what he's doing now. "This sort of thing seemed so unattainable 10 years ago," he says.

Though like any dream the reality for Milne is different to the idea of it. "It's fraught with problems. And it's not like I have any great financial security," he says.

Milne arrived in America at the end of July and set up in New York with his girlfriend for a "semi-residential experience". Between then and the start of the US tour in October, he toured Europe, playing a week of acoustic shows in Italy and a concert in Stockholm, among other highlights. In the past seven weeks, Lawrence Arabia has been playing shows in fits and starts, bunny-hopping across the country, getting to Chicago, Toronto, Boston, New York and the West Coast.

The tour Milne is on, his third with Lawrence Arabia, is partly self-funded, but supported in part also by his American record label, Yep Rock, and a contribution from NZ on Air's Outward Sound fund. He says the tour is the culmination of a huge degree of planning and financial angst. At best you can break even, he says.

Also marking this particular tour apart from others is that it is the first time that Lawrence Arabia have headlined their own shows in the United States. "It creates another level of worry and responsibility," Milne says.

The Lawrence Arabia tour party is rounded out with two other musicians, Daniel Ward from the Sneaks and Andrew Keoghan, and a tour manager. This far into a tour, Milne says the four of them are pretty familiar with each other. If they are not sleeping on someone's floor, they'll be top and tailing in hotel beds. "We're all pretty good friends to begin with, but the conversation definitely gets a little bit more obscure and obscene after a few weeks," he says.

We have a laugh about the human relations component of a long rock tour. In large touring groups, Milne says, he's always surprised at how an outsider always emerges amongst the touring party, but then ends up fulfilling the role of a unifying scapegoat. "It's a strange dynamic," he says.

Milne talks about a long American tour from back when he was playing with the Brunettes. The band did two laps of the country and half way through it the internal relationships had started to break down. A new soundman joined the touring party that no one was really a big fan of. "It was amazing how that brought everyone together," he says.

With Lawrence Arabia headlining their own shows across the United States, a lot of New Zealanders have come out of the woodwork to catch the band.

"It is interesting to me, because it is generally people who have never heard of us. They're naturalised Americans, maybe, and they just want to get a little bit in touch with their heritage, get in touch with the idea of New Zealand and see the changes," Milne says.

Milne pauses, and clarifies. "I like it though. I like having those home conversations. I'm fascinated with expats. Everyone has their story."

The Americans in attendance, Milne says, are a little more upfront and enthusiastic than home crowds to come up to him and express excitement and sincerity about the show that could seem uncool in New Zealand.

"It's hard to crack the levels of irony in New Zealand," Milne says. "I know that I'm cloaked in irony by birth, coming from New Zealand." 

For Milne, being in America at the moment is mostly about survival. There's no strategy. He's lucky to have the support of a label, and be able to use the New Zealand Government's music lobbying apparatus, which he says is better resourced than any other country in the world.

He thinks maybe he'll release an EP tied to this year's release of The Sparrow and try to come back to the USA next year to tour, and do it all again.

It was lovely to talk to Milne. He's a pretty good guy. As with all things "America", it's fascinating to see where and how dream and reality intersect and the ambition and risk required in reaching for those dreams, anyway.

Maybe you've caught a Lawrence Arabia show, somewhere out there in the big wide world?

Are you the sort to check out any New Zealand act when you're abroad?

How does New Zealand music serve as a cultural touchstone for you when you're away from home?

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