Pinback has been traveling constantly this past year in support of the new album, Information Retrieved. We were planning the final leg of our US tour when the opportunity came up to play on Jimmy Fallon’s show in New York. The tour had been planned originally as a mostly southern US tour, so we had to do some creative re-routing to fit it in. Since we had been flying to the majority of our tour destinations, we’d pared the live band down to just three people to accommodate the expenses of traveling. We were able to do this by adding sequenced tracks that I controlled. Fallon had a strict requirement that no backing tracks be used, so we were asked to incorporate live players to fill out the songs. The Roots are the fabulous house band on the show, and we were able to draw on them for help with the performance.
It was surprising how much back and forth went on when deciding which songs were to be performed. I had naively assumed that the band gets to choose, but it turns out that it’s all negotiated between the label and the TV producers, along with the band. The songs we wanted to play were deemed too mellow and they asked for faster, more energetic tunes. It was decided, after a month, that we’d play “Proceed to Memory” and “His Phase.” Then it was up to us to figure out personnel for the performance. It turns out “Captain” Kirk Douglass from the Roots was familiar with the band and volunteered to play extra guitar on both songs with us. We then enlisted New Yorkers Matt Schulz (Enon) and Rick Froberg (Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, Obits) to do electro drums and backing vocals, respectively. The final piece was to find a keyboard player to do the simple synth melody. We asked our friend and touring partner JP Hasson (JP Inc.) to fill in.
The tour began for me with a rough start. I had developed a raging ear infection the night before our flight, and my eardrum ruptured. By the time we landed in Nashville, I couldn’t hear out of my left ear and there was an intense ringing sound. I struggled along with various antibiotics and meds, and a few days later my back went out. We nearly had to cancel a show one night, but we pulled it off. In the meantime, three other members of the touring party had come down with wicked colds and coughs. The tight quarters of our van were a difficult place to avoid each other’s germs. And the fast-paced schedule of six-hour drives, early load-ins, and early hotel departures the following mornings kept everyone in a precarious state of health. Of course, touring is fun, but it also wears you out. And the upcoming TV appearance was starting to weigh heavily on us. With the colds that were being passed around, there was constant concern about our ability to play the songs to the best of our ability.
After winding around the country, we shot straight up to New York to play a sold-out show in Brooklyn. This is where we’d meet up with the rest of the TV line up (minus Kirk, of course). We did a quick run-through at our sound check to make sure people knew their parts, and that the gear was working correctly. We had the following day off, so we tried to stay pretty mellow. This can be a difficult task in a city like New York. There’s so much to do, and we have tons of friends there, so hiding out in a hotel room wasn’t a realistic option.
I ended up heading over to Manhattan with a friend that evening to catch the great John Riley and the Village Vanguard Orchestra. We weren’t able to get in, but luckily a few blocks away Ari Hoenig was playing with his trio at Smalls, so we caught both sets of that. Then we headed back to Brooklyn and caught another great group at Union Pool, called Reverend Vince Anderson. Some of the members were from the bands TV on the Radio and the Dap Kings.
By this time, it’s around two in the morning and we were getting up at eight, so I figured that I should head back to the hotel and get a few hours of sleep. There had been a huge tour bus parked in front of the hotel, and when I arrived back in the room our tour manager, JP, told me that it was the bus for the band Minus the Bear. I had toured with them years back, and the drummer Erin Tate is a close friend, so I ran down and knocked on the bus door. Turns out a few other friends that I knew were on board, so I ended up visiting with them for a couple hours. I finally hit the pillow at five.
I woke up, bleary-eyed with three hours of sleep, and jumped into a chartered transport that took us from our hotel to the NBC studio. We were greeted by Elayna. She helped us get our badges and we made our way up to the sixth floor where the show would be taped. Since TV shows are union gigs, we weren’t supposed to handle the gear. Instead, there was a huge team of people who had loaded in our equipment. We got everything set up, and managed to locate coffee and some things eat. I was starting to feel the lack of sleep, combined with unsettled nerves and cups of strong coffee—a woozy combination, to say the least.
We did a basic line check and then were joined by Kirk from the Roots. After greeting each other, we talked a bit about the songs and the parts that were to be played. Rob had spent part of the morning trying to remember what the parts were and was prepared to show Kirk how they were played. When asked if he wanted to be shown the parts, he declined. “I feel good,” Kirk said. “No need to go over anything. Let’s just play the songs.” We were a little skeptical, but of course he nailed them both on the first try and knew exactly what to do. This guy was a real badass! And the coolest part was that he was so nice and easygoing. (Thanks, Kirk!)
We ran though each song two times so the audio crew could get their levels sorted, and so we could adjust our monitor mixes. Things sounded good, and then we wrapped up with a four-hour break ahead of us. My hearing was pretty muffled, but I was able to follow along well enough. We wandered about NBC, checking out all the great photos on the wall from previous shows and celebrity guests. The hallway was filled with rows of outfits that were used by the cast and band. I was feeling pretty worn out and was scheming about how I could catch a couple hours of sleep before the performance. Our small dressing room was pretty jam-packed with the seven of us and soon friends would be arriving, making the room generally a bad place to try to lie down for a rest.
It occurred to me that NBC might have a medical facility in the building, so I asked Elayna if there was a doctor who could look at my ear. It turns out NBC actually has a whole medical area with multiple doctors. I had been trying to time a clinic visit over the past week, but it was so difficult with virtually no blocks of time during the day to stop. We were traveling at such a fast pace that the only time off was after the show when the clinics were closed. The chance to see a doctor in the building was a lifesaver.
I was escorted up to see a doctor and was quickly examined. It turns out, it was hard for them to tell how much damage had been done and they said I needed to see a specialist. With the pressure of the TV appearance, I felt that I should really try to improve my hearing situation if at all possible. After going down a down a long list of ENT doctors in Manhattan, the sixth place I called said that if came immediately they could fit me in. I had two hours left, so I ran out of the building and into the streets of New York. Armed with my trusty iPhone and Maps app, about thirty minutes later I was able to get in to see the doctor. They verified my ruptured eardrum and were able to actually remove some of the damaged tissue that was causing some of the hearing loss and ringing. Within seconds, about half my hearing came back. (Hooray!) I ran back to NBC to rejoin with everyone.
We had a TV in our dressing room, so we could watch what was happening during the show. My nerves were pretty frazzled at this point, after running around to the doctors and the lack of sleep and food. All the scenarios started racing through my head. Would I count the song off correctly? Would I freak out and drop my sticks? Would the rest of the band play well? It was pretty stressful. And having to wait until the very end of the show prolonged this feeling to the maximum. Our dressing room was packed, so I waited in the hall and tried to warm up my hands with some rudiments. I ate some Pepto to try and settle my nauseous stomach. We all felt the weight on our shoulders.
There wasn’t any sort of fancy dress or makeup preparation going on, although it was offered to us. JP, who was joining us on keyboard, normally performs his act in an old man costume, complete with horrific baby blue suit, gray wig, and fake beard. We were pleased that he would be joining us in his usual stage attire as well. This ridiculous part of the show was easing our nerves bit. It was pretty funny.
The moment finally arrived where we were led to the stage and were met with loud cheering. The stage was surrounded on the side and back with bleachers so Pinback fans were able to participate in the show. It was starting to feel a little more like we were in the right place. The Roots were next to us and were entertaining the crowd while we set up and did a quick line check. Everything was set to go, and then they counted in to Jimmy Fallon’s introduction of the band. We started into “Proceed to Memory,” and I began playing. I was listening with my eyes closed, as I do often during our live show, eventually looking around to see what was going on. I particularly avoided looking at any cameras but mostly watched the band, the nearby audience, and Kirk, who was shredding confidently to my left. The band sounded good, and I couldn’t notice any mistakes that I had worried about previously. We were settling in and trying to transcend the nerves and fear that had been with us all day. I was gripping my sticks tighter than I normally do and tried to loosen up and relax. Taking a few deep breaths helped me lock into the correct tempo and keep from rushing.
We finished the song and were met with loud cheers from the audience. Jimmy Fallon made his closing remarks, reintroduced the band, and then came over to shake everyone’s hand. The Roots jumped into a tune and sounded awesome, of course. They all looked so relaxed. The engineers reset their equipment, and we were counted in to the second song “His Phase,” which would be used as an online exclusive. We played well but had a little hiccup at the end. Zach and I looked at each other and laughed because we knew we had blown the last four seconds of the song but not apparently so. Again, the crowd cheered and called out the band members by name. We were officially done! Mission accomplished.
The feeling of the weight being lifted off our shoulders was unmistakable. All the fears of blowing it were a distant memory. Then a wave of relief came over us, and we could finally really enjoy the moment. We were ushered offstage, so they could clear the room. A few friends of ours that had come to the taping were pulled in to hangout while we packed up. Again, the NBC crew did a majority of the work, and we pitched in. Some of us did the obligatory photo of sitting in Jimmy Fallon’s chair. Then we headed back to the dressing room to visit with friends and family for a few minutes and soon started for the door.
Our next show was fourteen hours away, so we had to start driving in order to get there in time. After loading our gear back into our van in Brooklyn, we headed towards Louisville, KY. The NBC staff had told us that the show would air that evening and that our segment would be around 1:20 am. We mapped it out, and aimed to be at a truck stop at that time to try to commandeer a TV. We struck out on the first try but then found an empty restaurant with a large TV. We explained that we had just taped the Fallon Show and asked if they could switch the channel so we could see it. The waitress excitedly helped us get the show tuned in. We laughed when JP was shown with his wig and fake beard and tried to spot friends in the audience. The performance was good and there were no audible mistakes. The sound of a rock band on TV is usually a diminutive representation, so we were not surprised with the sound quality. That part of it is out of our hands, but all in all we were happy with the way it came across.
Looking back, the time leading up the show was not anything I’d describe as “fun.” But now that it’s over, it sure seemed like a blast.